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Small Creatures May Live in Slow-Motion World

Small creatures may live in a slow-motion world, according to a new study. (Trinity College Dublin)
Small creatures may live in a slow-motion world, according to a new study. (Trinity College Dublin)
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Small animals with high metabolism experience the world as if it were in slow motion, according to a new study.

According to a team of researchers from Trinity College Dublin, the University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews, an “animals’ ability to perceive time is linked to their pace of life.”

“Our results lend support to the importance of time perception in animals where the ability to perceive time on very small scales may be the difference between life and death for fast moving organisms such as predators and their prey,” commented lead author Kevin Healy, PhD student at the School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin.

The study was done with a variety of animals using a phenomenon based on the maximum speed of flashes of light an individual can see before the light source is seen as constant. This principle can be seen every day on televisions, computer screens and movie theater screens. Dogs, for example, have eyes with a refresh rate higher than humans and can see a television flickering.

One example of this phenomenon at work, the authors say, is the housefly and its ability to avoid being swatted. The research showed flies “observe motion on finer timescales than our own eyes can achieve,” which allows them to avoid being hit.

The researchers likened the fly’s perception to the scene in the popular movie, The Matrix, in which the protagonist is able to slow down his perception of time enough to dodge a torrent of bullets.

Professor Graeme Ruxton of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, who collaborated on the research project, said in a statement, “Having eyes that send updates to the brain at much higher frequencies than our eyes do is of no value if the brain cannot process that information equally quickly. Hence, this work highlights the impressive capabilities of even the smallest animal brains. Flies might not be deep thinkers, but they can make good decisions very quickly.”

In contrast, one species of tiger beetle runs faster than its eyes can keep up, essentially becoming blind and requiring it to stop periodically to re-evaluate its prey’s position. Even in humans, athletes in various sports have also been shown to quicken their eyes’ ability to track moving balls during games.

Assistant Professor at the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin, Andrew Jackson, said the  “ecology for an organism is all about finding a niche where you can succeed that no-one else can occupy. Our results suggest that time perception offers an as yet unstudied dimension along which animals can specialize and there is considerable scope to study this system in more detail. We are beginning to understand that there is a whole world of detail out there that only some animals can perceive and it’s fascinating to think of how they might perceive the world differently to us.”

The study published in the leading international journal Animal Behavior.

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