Field Note: Big Dog, Soft Mouth
Published: July 25, 2022
By Mark Seth Lender
A giant petrel gives the camera a steely-eyed stare. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)
Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender reflects on how our limited perspective influences our perception of nature.
Where we look edits what we see. The action and the apparent drama was in the foreground, the two giant petrels and their conflict while the critical part of the story was developing in the background, the elephant seal and her anger. But even if my attention had been concentrated in the right place, the sequential grab – release – grab - release which was the key to everything, could not have been anticipated. And it happened very fast. It was recorded in only 11 photographic frames, a span of 0.7857 seconds. Attention, complexity, precognition and speed defined an event almost impossible for the unaided human eye to record.
In observing and deciphering wildlife behavior we are always at a disadvantage. We can learn the context in part because the differences between Human and Animal are less than we make them out to be. Little or nothing in animal lives would make sense to us if that were not the case. However, while we sometimes have equal acuity of vision or hearing, animals in the wild take in far more of the scene than we do. What to them is worthy of inclusion is blurred and meaningless to us, the noise in the signal we are built to disregard. In those cases where the animal’s sight and hearing are orders of magnitude greater than our own, all the more so. Not to mention how thoroughly and well animals process what they observe.
Augmentation of our limited senses enlarges perspective. Looking at still frames rather than the fleeting moment. It slows things down to a level of acuity as great as that of our animal subjects. Overall, it allows us to ask questions we would otherwise be unable to compose. Here is a large and enormously powerful animal exercising forbearance at no obvious benefit and at some personal risk. The giant petrel with his lightning reaction time and formidable beak could have turned on that elephant seal upon his release and blinded her. The safest course for her would have been to rip his wing out of the socket. Given the discrepancy in weight and strength, it took considerable effort and care on her part to avoid doing just that. We are compelled to search for a reason.
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