This is a transcript of our episode “Do insects see the world in slow motion? Looking through animal eyes”

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Roslyn: You’re listening to Brains On. Where we’re serious about being curious. 

Voice: Brains On is funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation

[Theme music]

Molly: In today’s episode, we’re getting into all about how animals can see the world around them…

(music slows down and everything powers off)

Molly: Sigh. That’s the third time we’ve lost power this week. What is going on!? Well -- Our switch for the backup generator is somewhere in here… (rustling around)

Roslyn: Do you think the experimental colony of blue iguanas is napping on the rooftop solar panels again? 

Molly: Maybe! The iguanas do love the Brains On headquarters solar set up. It’s also possible that Marc and Sanden are replacing the wind turbine blades… 

Roslyn: They did mention decorating the turbines with sea shells - so when they spun we’d hear the ocean. 

Molly: (rustling as if rummaging around) Roslyn, do you see a  label that says ‘GENNY’ anywhere? 

Roslyn: Not yet. Who’s Genny? 

Molly: Sanden can only do maintenance work if the thing he’s working on has a name and a plant nearby. The generator is named Genny, and there’s a potted Queen of the night cactus next to it.

HAWKMOTH: Did HAWKMOTH hear someone say… queen of the night cactus blossom? 

Molly: Who’s that?! 


Roslyn: Hi… uh, Hawkmoth? Where did you come from?? 

HAWKMOTH: HAWKMOTH is….generally… around. But HAWKMOTH is HERE for Queen of the night blossoms. (wings flapping)

Molly: Do insects always refer to themselves in third person?

HAWKMOTH. Not all of them. But not all of them are named HAWKMOTH.

Roslyn: Fair point 

HAWKMOTH: (wings flapping) Aaaaaand Ah. Here’s that queen of the night. Good thing you have the lights off — this sweet and juicy delicacy only blooms at night, mmmm. (slurping)

Roslyn: How did you find that cactus fast?? 

HAWKMOTH: HAWKMOTH is way better at seeing in the dark than you humans! HAWKMOTH actually slows its brain down a little to take in more light when it’s dark, to help HAWKMOTH see better. Nothing crazy, but a human wouldn’t understand. (slurp slurp)

Molly: Oh wow. And here’s Genny’s switch, too. Thanks for your help, HAWKMOTH.

HAWKMOTH: Wait wait wait lemme get one more sip before you turn those awful lights back on! Queen of the night blossoms and HAWKMOTH are both VERY nocturnal. 

Molly: As nice as it is to meet you, HAWKMOTH, we do have to get back to taping the show — so you know, let us know when you’ve had your fill, ok? (straw sucking to empty noise)

HAWKMOTH: OK. HAWKMOTH is satisfied. Carry on. 

(Switch, then  power up)

[THEME music]

Molly: You’re listening to Brains On from American Public Media, I’m Molly Bloom and I’m here today with Roslyn from Duluth, Minnesota. Hi, Roslyn!

Roslyn: Hi! 

Molly: Today we’re talking about how animals see the world, because you sent in a great question about this. Do you remember the question you sent? 

Roslyn: Do insects see things slower than we do or faster?

Molly: What made you curious about that?

Roslyn: Well, I was actually watching a film where they had people who were walking slower and then were tiny people who were walking faster and it was, I don’t know, it got me interested.

Molly:  So you were thinking if you’re a tiny insect do you see people slower just like the tiny humans in that movie?

Roslyn: Yeah!

Molly: That inspired us to look into the wild world of animal vision. And you’re not the only one who wondered about how animals see the world.

Maya: Hi Brains On! I’m Maya and I was wondering why do we see different colors than animals?

Finja: My name is Finja and my question is do animals see the same rainbow we do and if not how is it different?

Silas: My name is Silas and I’m from Fairbanks, Alaska and my question is how do some animals see heat?

Zoya: Hi my name is Zoya. 

Quinn: Hi my name is Quinn.

Zoya: Our question is why do we see colors that some animals can’t see?

Harriet: Hi my name is Harriet and I’m from Ohio. My question is how can eagles and other birds see from so far away?

Molly: Before we get into animal eyeballs, let’s talk a little bit about how we see the world. 

Roslyn: Our brain builds a picture of the world from the light that our eyes take in. 

Molly: Two kinds of cells at the back of your eye tell your brain what light is coming in. One is called a rod and the other is called a cone.

Roslyn: Rods are great for seeing in low light and cones tell your brain about color. 

Molly: Rod and cone -- they kinda sound like a TV sitcom duo.

[Cheesy Music]

Voice: Rod and Cone! Friends in your eyeholes!

They’re seeing the world 
Sensing the light
Cone’s good at color  
And Rod’s for low light! Yeah!

Rod: We’re friends.

Cone: You got that right, buddy. High five!

Roslyn: I’d watch that with my rods and cones.

Molly: Same. So, speaking of cones -- most people have three kinds -- ones that sense blue, ones that sense green and ones that sense red. And those cones combine to help us see a lot of different colors. 

Roslyn: By the way — people who are colorblind might have fewer cones, or their cones might not work as well, which makes it harder for them to tell colors apart. But even people with the usual number of cones can’t see all the light in the world. 

Molly: That’s because light can travel in a wide range of energy levels. Our eyes can only detect a tiny fraction of it. Just a very specific range.

Roslyn: It’s similar to hearing -- you know how you can hear this tone?

[TONE starts medium then goes up in pitch until it’s impossible to hear]

Roslyn: But as it gets higher and higher in pitch ---- it gets harder and harder to hear. Until -- it’s gone!

Molly: The tone is still there - we just can’t hear it anymore. Our ears aren’t equipped. But other animals might be able to hear it.

Dog: Woof woof!

Roslyn: Like dogs. They have good ears. Cute fluffy good ears.

Dog: Woof.

Molly: It’s similar with light. All the light we see is only part of the light out there. We call that visible light. But there’s light that’s much lower in energy - like radio waves and microwaves.

Roslyn: Which we can’t see. (wah wah)

Molly: Then there’s light that’s much higher in energy - like ultraviolet waves or gamma waves. 

Roslyn: Which we also can’t see. (wah wah)

Molly: We call this entire range of light -- the electromagnetic spectrum! It’s so cool and important, we wrote a song to help you remember it. The waves go in order from lowest energy to highest energy. Hit it singers!




Yeah, here we go
Space between waves gets shorter and shorter
Electromagnetic spectrum that’s the order


It’s the electromagnetic spectrum
The electromagnetic spectrum
These are the facts we checked em
The electromagnetic spectrum

Molly: So lovely.

Roslyn: And informative.

Molly: Exactly. Now, we can’t see things outside the visible spectrum -- but some animals can! 

And they… have some feelings about it. We checked out an animal vision support group to hear more about that. 

(murmury talking, some shuffling) 

Mal the Mantis: Ahem, Welcome to the Eyes Wider Open support group. Here, we can all share what it’s like to see the world, through our eyes. If we haven’t, ahem, SEEN you here before, heh heh, welcome. 


Monty the Mantis: OK, OK, some of you are tired of my little joke. Thank you for that feedback. I wanna kick off with intros. So I’ll start. I’m Mal, I’m a mantis shrimp. I can see ultraviolet light, and I have a bunch of different color sensing cells, but scientists don’t think I’m great at telling colors apart. And I’m still processing that.

Cecily Snake: I’m Cecily. I’m a pit viper and I’m amazing. I see a heat map of whatever I’m looking at. 

Caleb Caribou: I’m Caleb, I’m a caribou, and I have really big eyeballs that can see ultraviolet light, like Mal. That makes my world much brighter.

Landry Lab: (pants) Hi, I’m Landry. (pants) I’m a yellow lab. My eyes have two kinds of cone cells. So I can tell blue and yellowish stuff apart pretty well. But the other colors are a bit mushy.

Bo Bluebottle: And I’m Bo. I’m a bluebottle butterfly. I have exquisite color vision. Like Caleb and Mal, I also see UV. 

Mal: Wow. Great. Thank you all so much. So who’d like to start today?

Cecily Snake: I’ll sssstart.

Mal: Thanks, Cecily.

Cecily Snake: So you know, pit vipers have these two pit organs on our faces, see— they look like second nostrils, but bigger. They help me ssssseeeee in a different way. My pit organs sense heat. My eyes see what’s around me. And my brain puts the two together. 

Mal: Fascinating. How do you feel about that? 

Cecily Snake: Ugh. Well, for one thing, I’m tired of getting here, and looking at the coffee, and seeing that it’s cold. The coffee here is never hot and it’s ssssso uncivilized that you all just keep eating and drinking lukewarm stuff. If you had any decent snacks, I’d spot them right away! Would it kill you to put a warm mouse on the snack table every once in a while

Mal the Mantis: Good note, thank you for sharing, Cecily. I’ll going to pass your snack request on. Who’d like to share next?

Caleb Caribou: I can. You know, I’m just feeling a little misunderstood. Like, no offense Mal and Bo, but everyone gets why bugs and shrimps use their UV vision to find friends and food. But they just don’t get me. 

Mal the Mantis: Wow, Caleb. That sounds really hard. Can you say more? 

Caleb Caribou: Well, seeing UV light helps me tell important things apart, too! Snow vs. lichen vs. a hungry wolf, for instance. It’s extra helpful to let more light into my eyes in the dark arctic winter, when my world is a deep, deep blue. But also, UV vision highlights urine. So, I knew not to sit in the chair that Landry marked, for instance. 

Landry the Lab: (pants) Couldn’t help myself! Apologies!

Mal the Mantis: So expressive, Landry. Thank you. And thanks for sharing Caleb. Bo -- you haven’t shared for a while. (fades out) 

Molly: Okay, let’s give our eyes a rest and instead - activate our ears. It’s time for the

Whisper: Mystery Sound!

Molly: Here it is. 

(Plays sound)

Molly: What is your guess?

Roslyn: I think it’s some sort of seal, maybe a sea gull?

Molly: A seal or a seagull, excellent guess. We’re gonna hear it again and be back with the answer in just a little bit.


Molly: We’re working on an episode about our favorite kind of suit.

Roslyn: Swimsuits?

Molly: Even cooler -- spacesuits! These technological wonders let humans survive in the cold, harsh and otherwise deadly vacuum of space.

Roslyn: Yeah, swimsuits definitely can’t do that.

Molly: Of course, we humans make all kinds of special suits -- ones that let us dive deep underwater, ones that protect firefighters from flames -- even ones that can camouflage us so we blend in with nature. So Roslyn -- if you could have a special suit that could help you with some task - any task -- what would it do?

Roslyn: Possibly a bike maintenance suit?

Molly: Ooh. Tell me more.

Roslyn: It would have all the things I’d need to fix my bike if, say, my tire popped.

Molly: That would be useful.

Roslyn: Yes it would.

Molly: What color would you want it to be?

Roslyn: Same color as my surroundings possibly.

Molly: Like a camouflage suit.

Roslyn: Yeah, like camouflage but not.

Molly: Whoa. Send us your super-suit ideas by heading to

Roslyn: We might use your answer in the show!

Molly: And while you’re there, you can send us mystery sounds, drawings, ideas and questions. 

Roslyn: Like this one:

Molly: Rebekah from Pocoima, California wrote to us asking: Why are we lighter in the pool? My little sister can carry me and I can carry her. Why is it so easy for us to do that?

Roslyn: Such a good question!

Molly: We’re going to answer that question during our Moment of Um at the end of the show.

Roslyn: And if you stay tuned to the very end of the show you can hear a clip of Smash Boom Best.

Molly: Each episode pits two cool things against each other and our debaters use jokes, stories and facts to argue for their side -- in hopes of persuading our kid judges that they are truly the smash boom best.

Roslyn: At the end of this episode you’ll hear a preview of -- ooh, this is a good one -- flying vs invisibility. 

Molly: Stay tuned!


Roslyn: You’re listening to Brains On from American Public Media. I’m Roslyn.

Molly: And I’m Molly. Okay, before we get back to eyes, we need to go back to our ears first. Let’s hear the mystery sound one more time. 

(plays sound)

Molly: Before you said a seal, maybe a seagull. Do you have any new guesses? 

Roslyn: I think I’ll stay where I was, I guess.

Molly: Some kind of animal.

Roslyn: Some kind of animal that’s fairly obnoxious.

Molly: (laughs) Well, here is the answer.

Tiffany: So the sound you just heard is the call of a bald eagle. My name is Tiffany Ploehn and I’m the avian care manager of the National Eagle Center.

Molly: Did you know that? Have you heard an eagle before?

Roslyn: I have actually, at our cabin I hear them all the time.

Molly: It’s hard when you hear these sounds out of context, you know. You could hear something super familiar to you and when you hear it out of context it’s super hard. But that’s really cool you get to hear bald eagles! 

Roslyn: Yeah.

Molly: I’ve never heard a bald eagle before. That’s not what I would imagine it sounds like.

Roslyn: They’re loud.

Molly: Very loud. Are they obnoxious like you thought?

Roslyn: Sometimes. It’s cool when you hear them though.

(eagle sound)

Molly: The National Eagle Center is in Wabasha, Minnesota, they educate people about these winged wonders. And if you are surprised that that was the sound of a bald eagle - you are not alone. Tiffany says most people think a bald eagle sounds like this:


Molly: But that’s not a bald eagle.

Tiffany: When you see eagles in movies and commercials and you see them flying around, you always hear that really loud majestic caw sound, and that’s actually a red tailed hawk sound and they dub over an eagle sound with it.

Molly: Cool trivia, right? But back to eagles -- they have some of the sharpest vision in animal-land. In part because their eyes are super special.


Tiffany: Eagle eyes are pretty unique in that they have actually two focal points in their eyes - or fovea. So they have kind of binocular vision like we do, so they can see straight forward. But then they have monocular vision, that goes off about 45 degrees in each eye.

Molly: So imagine being able to see very clearly what’s ahead of you. But also, what’s lurking at the side of your vision -- you can see that clearly too.

Tiffany: And by going back and forth between them they can get this really distinct 3D vision. And so that’s how they have such fantastic depth perception.


Molly: This helps them hunt tiny critters like rabbits and rats. Tiffany says eagles also have extremely large eyes compared to their head size and they can see ultraviolet light. Overall, their vision is 4 to 5 times better than ours.

Tiffany: For instance, we have some fun comparisons -- like, an eagle, if they were sitting on top of a ten story building, could look down and actually see a carpenter ant walking along the sidewalk. Or they can see a rabbit - if it was running, if it was about 24 inches long, they could see that rabbit running along a bluff about three miles away.

Molly: Not bad eagles. Not bad. 


Molly: Now let’s answer the question that inspired this whole episode. 

Roslyn: Is it true that small bugs and insects see humans moving slower than they are? Or do we see ourselves moving faster than we think?

Molly: To find the answer, Roslyn and I visited a lab at the University of Minnesota.

Paloma: My name is Paloma Gonzalez Bellido. I am an assistant professor at the ecology, evolution and behavior department at the University of Minnesota and I study how insects see the world and how they catch their prey.

Roslyn: Paloma and her team invited us to their lab and answered many of our questions about how insects see the world.

Molly: Researchers Kate Feller and Sergio Rossoni started by showing us where they raise the insects they study.

(in the lab) Molly: Wow, it’s warm in here…

Kate: Yeah! So this is the room where we rear all the insects. You’ll notice it’s pretty warm in here and it’s very high humidity. And that’s essentially to keep them happy because otherwise if it’s too dry in the winter we really struggled with getting them to not dehydrate.

Molly: They raise dragonflies and killer flies. 

Kate: We’re really interested in the fact that they hunt and kill stuff. And they do it while they’re flying.

Molly: And so in studying the way these insect catch other insects to eat -- they need to study the way their brains work -- particularly the way they see. 

Paloma: They definitely see much faster than we do. Basically they have photoreceptors that work really, really quickly. And photoreceptors are the cells in your eyes that transmit light into electrical energy. Those are the ones that make us see. And they have a very nice and tricky difference to the way that our eyes work and that’s why they can see so fast.

Sergio: You might have seen films of giants that move really slowly compared to us. And that’s because any animal that’s bigger is gonna require a lot more muscle force, that’s going to require a lot more time to be able to develop. So the smaller you are the faster you can move. So if you’re going to see very slowly and move very fast, that’s not going to be very efficient so vision is going to match up and try to be as fast as your movements are. We’ve got slow vision compared to most other animals because we don’t require that fast vision because we can’t move that fast anyway so that would be a waste of energy.

Kate: Yeah, your question actually sparked a very interesting philosophical debate. (laughter) It’s a bit of a misrepresentation to say -- at least I think -- to say that insects have slow motion vision or that they see the world in slow motion because I can’t ask them how they perceive time and space and we can never ask them because we can’t talk to them directly. However, they do have high speed vision kind of like a high speed camera. So the slow motion camera on your phone is actually a higher speed camera than your regular camera. It’s capturing frames at a faster rate that our visual system is able to.

Molly: How do you study their brains? Because you can’t put electrodes on them -- or can you?

Kate: You can. You put little electrodes on them and you measure the electricity.

Sergio: Very patiently and with a microscope.

Kate: Very delicate and very patient.

Molly: How do you get them to stay still?

Kate: The cold actually is a very good anesthesia.

Roslyn: And how do these discoveries help modern day technology would you say?

Kate: I mean it’s like a little flying high speed camera that’s able to grab stuff out of the air. I can think of a lot of applications for that. We’re the modern day explorers that figure out what’s going on in the natural world and then people who do more applied work building stuff and inventing things can take the principles we’ve figured out and then implement them in their own designs.

[THEME music]

Roslyn: There’s a whole range of light -- it’s called the electromagnetic spectrum.

Molly: Humans can only see a portion of it. We call that part “visible light.”

Roslyn:  But some animals can see more kinds of light that we can - like infrared light or ultraviolet.

Molly: Eagles have two focal points in their eyes which give them extra powerful depth of vision.

Roslyn: And insects do indeed see things differently than we do.

Hawkmoth: And HAWKMOTH can see better in the dark because HAWKMOTH can slow down HAWKOTH’s brain. Yay HAWKMOTH!

Molly: That’s it for this episode of Brains On.

Roslyn: Brains On is produced by Marc Sanchez, Sanden Totten and Molly Bloom.

Molly: Our fellow Menaka Wilhelm sees all. We had production help from Kristina Lopez and Jackie Kim. We had engineering help from Veronica Rodriguez. Special thanks to Becky Hartley, Helen Bond Plylar, The Dino Birds, Glen Jeffrey, Ricky Patel, Brenna Everson, Peter Ecklund, Misha Euceph, James Kim, and Arwen Nicks.

Roslyn: Brains On is a non profit public media podcast. Your support helps us keep making new episodes.

Molly: Head to brains on dot org slash donate to give and while you’re there you can see our cool thank you gifts.

Roslyn: Now before we go it’s time for our Moment of Um….

Chen: Hi, hello! My name is Xie Chen. I am an associate professor at Cal Tech here in the Physics Department. And I study theoretical physics.

Molly: Who better to answer Rebekah’s question about why it’s so much easier to pick people up when they’re in a pool.

Chen: That’s a great question! And the answer to that is well water is helping you. Water is doing the job of holding things up. So imagine you have a rubber duck in your hand and if you’re standing on the ground, you let go of the rubber duck, the rubber duck will fall to the ground. Right? But if you’re standing in the pool and you let go of the rubber duck, the rubber duck would float on the surface of the water. And even if you pull the rubber duck beneath the water surface it will pop up to the surface so that’s because flotation. Because water is holding things up. Of course we are much heavier than the rubber duck so when we are in the water we do not automatically just float on the surface but water is still doing some of the work to hold us up. And actually if you go somewhere in the Medtierranean there is a place called the Dead Sea. And the Dead Sea it contains so much salt that it’s doing a much better job at holding things up so when people swim in the Dead Sea they actually just float on the surface. There’s no problem of sinking beneath the water.

Molly: Water may help keep us afloat, but these names are all I need to keep my spirits up! This is the newest group of listeners to join the Brains Honor Roll. These are the people who sent us Mystery Sounds, pictures, drawings and questions to help fuel the show. 


Roslyn: We’ll be back soon with more answers to your questions.

Molly: Thanks for listening!