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Which animals perceive time the fastest?

According to a recent study presented at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting in Edinburgh on December 20, 2022, animals that perceive time the fastest are those that are small, can fly, or are marine predators. 

The scientists used data collected from a variety of studies that measured temporal perception in over 100 animal species through flickering light experiments, which recorded the rate of optic nerve sent information with the help of special devices called electroretinograms. The analysis revealed that animals with fast-paced lifestyles have visual systems which can detect changes at highest rates.

For instance, species such as blow flies or dragon flies were able to detect changes at the highest rate, having visual systems operating at 300hz (that is, they were able to detect changes 300 times a second) – a significantly higher rate than in humans, who can see at 65hz. In vertebrates, the fastest temporal perceptions belonged to the pied fly catchers (146hz), while animals such as salmon and dogs clocked in at 96hz and 75hz, respectively. The slowest time perception belonged to crown-of-thorn starfish (0.7hz).

“Having fast vision helps a species perceive rapid changes in the environment. Such detailed perception of changes is very useful if you move quickly or need to pinpoint the trajectory of moving prey,” said Kevin Healy, an expert in Macroecology at the University of Galway, who presented the study.

“By looking at such a wide range of animals, from dragonflies to starfish, our findings show that a species’ perception of time itself is linked to how fast its environment can change. This can help our understanding of predator-prey interactions or even how aspects such as light pollution may affect some species more than others.”

The scientists were surprised to find that many terrestrial predators have relatively slow temporal perception compared to aquatic predators. “We think this difference may be because in aquatic environments predators can continuously adjust their position when lunging for prey, while in terrestrial environments, predators that lunge at prey, such as a jumping spider, are not able to make adjustments once they’ve launched,” Healey explained.

Since having fast temporal perception is energetically costly and limited by how quickly neurons linked to retinal cells in the eye can recharge, many animals that don’t require such skills have slower time perception and use their energy for growth or reproduction.

Finally, the researchers found that variation in time perception can also occur within species, including in humans, with some studies showing that in football, for instance, goalkeepers can see changes at a higher rate.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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