The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

Every now and then, an animal's sensory superiority goes above and beyond the usual and takes a turn for the bizarre and/or terrifying.
The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

You probably already know that when it comes to everything but intellectual pursuits and wearing cardigans in a knot over one's shoulders, animals have humans beat. All of your senses together can't match what a dog can pick up with its nose, for instance. But every now and then, an animal's sensory superiority goes above and beyond the usual and takes a turn for the bizarre and/or terrifying.

Vampire Bats Have a Map of Your Veins

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

Vampire bats are the only mammals that subsist entirely on blood -- otherwise, we'd just call them "bats." Getting their nightly blood dinner, however, requires a supersense that you probably didn't even know existed, and it comes from a nose that looks like it fought leprosy and lost. By, like, a million.

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

Bats only appear on film as 1980s school photos.

That nose that God forgot actually does more than just invite business cards of bat plastic surgeons -- it can sense the heat of your blood flowing through your veins.

Its nose-lip combo contains infrared heat cells that can sense the warmth of the blood at a distance. That in itself is pretty amazing, because all other mammals (including you) have to, you know, actually touch things with their skin to know they're hot. What if you could just sense that the barrel end of your sister's curling iron was 150 degrees before you accidentally sat on it? But the fact that vampire bats sense heat with their face holes isn't the crazy part.

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

It's the fact that they refuse to eat or drink unless it's served to them in a sterling silver bowl.

The crazy part is that they know where the best veins are.

Their system for heat detection is so efficient that they don't waste time tooth-stabbing the hairy parts over and over again to tap a vein, which is impressive, considering that they snack on animals as big as cows. The vampire bat hones right in on the vein, first time, every time.

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

"Gross, these pork chops are still raw!"

So, it's kind of like if the Predator's infrared vision didn't just show body heat, but actually showed him the best possible places to stab you.

Catfish Are Giant Swimming Tongues

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

Yes, catfish are just huge, fish-shaped tongues, continuously licking our waterways.

The average person has about 10,000 taste buds, all in about the same place -- the mouth. According to one neurophysiologist who happens to be a catfish expert, a small 6-inch catfish can have over 250,000 taste receptors located all over its body. Or as he put it, it'd be like "if the tip of your tongue grew out and covered your body." Which is to say, you cannot touch a catfish somewhere where it cannot taste you.

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

"Our love tastes like sunscreen!"

Can you imagine walking through a room and tasting THE ROOM as you went by? That's what it's like to be a catfish ... all day and all night. Water pollution? Tasted it. The collective pees and poops of all the water animals in its vicinity? He tastes that shit in his sleep -- literally. There is nowhere for this animal to hide from the taste of the nastiness around him. Now think about that time you shoved a catfish down your pants. It suddenly makes that seem kind of weird, doesn't it?

Of course, the catfish's sense of taste is how it locates and tracks down its food. Most of its taste buds are concentrated on its Fu Manchu mustache*, which kind of acts like a taste antenna as it swims through the current, tasting for the putrid slime trail of some prey it can swallow up.

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

Or gauging the success level of a big ol' fish orgy.

*Yes, yes, we know, they're called barbels, but for our purposes, it's a Fu Manchu mustache. A tongue mustache that licks everything, all the time.

A Narwhal's Tusk Is a Huge Sensory Organ

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

For years, scientists have wondered what the hell was up with narwhals, the bizarre creatures that look like manatees, only with gigantic horns growing from their skulls. Are they the unicorns of the sea, and if so, do you need a human virgin to trap them? These are the questions that even science can't answer.

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses
Via Ogreenworld

Though we do know that one of them is guarding the armor we need to slay the ice demon.

What we have figured out is what's up with the narwhal's single tusk. For one thing, it's not a tusk -- it's a tooth. One long, weird, spiral tooth. But what we didn't know until recently was that the narwhal's snaggletooth is covered with 10 million nerve endings. It's not a weapon or a hunting tool or a fireplace poker, as previously assumed. It's a sensory organ capable of things we're just now starting to figure out.

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

"Sweet Neptune, you should be imprisoned for what you've done with that hand."

For example, tests show that these narwhals can detect changes in water salinity with their tooth sabers. How is measuring salt content anything other than completely useless for anyone not worried about hypertension? It turns out that changes in salinity affect when water freezes. And if you're an air breather making a living around shifting ice floes, then knowing that you can get back to the surface is a real plus.

So narwhals have developed an ability to forecast ice formations using the mother of all bucked teeth. They can also detect temperature and water pressure, and, when it's held above the water, the tusk may even be able to detect barometric pressure. All of this with a single, gigantic tooth.

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

"It's normally much longer, but this water is freezing!"

A Spookfish Can Hunt and Keep a Lookout Simultaneously, With Mirrorvision

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

This slimy deep sea horror is called a spookfish, because in the world of biology it's considered unprofessional to call something "orange nuts boner face."

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

"Oh, come on! I know I've suggested it hundreds of times, but this time it actually fits."

If you had to guess which parts of that nightmare are its eyes (like if you needed to know where to aim if you were facing a giant one in a video game boss fight), you'd go for those big orange spheres. But the reality is much cooler than that.

You see, fish that live in the endless night of the briny depths face a problem shared by fat kids who get bullied in middle school: They have to look for food while staying alert against their own predators. You almost need eyes in the back of your head ... or the ability to look up and down at the same time. This fish does that, with internal mirrors.

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He's a tiny swimming disco.

The spookfish has split eyes, so it can see in both directions at once -- it's literally like having eyes in the back of its head. It's actually not a separate pair of eyes, but a complicated system that uses a curved mirror of reflective plates to collect the miniscule bits of light to be found a half-mile under the surface. So it's less like having eyes in the back of your head and more like having a pair of those novelty sunglasses with mirrors that let you see behind you. It is the only vertebrate creature on earth that does this.

It makes a little more sense looking at it from the side:

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

So really, The Simpsons wasn't that far off.

The eyes are going the opposite direction you think -- the little black eyes on the bottom are looking up, for food. The big "eyes" on top are actually the backs of this mirrored surface, which collect little flashes of bioluminescence below that signal a predator is coming (the spookfish is vulnerable from below, something else useful to know if you ever have to fight a giant one).

By the way, if you're wondering why animals vulnerable to attack from above haven't also evolved some kind of upward-looking eye just to keep watch out for them, well, they have. Go grab a lizard out of your yard. See that dot in the middle of its forehead?

Bill Peterman
Bill Peterman

It's right next to the naturally occurring arrow that floats over its head to ward away predators.

That's called a parietal eye. It's a light-sensitive third eye that lots of creatures have, specifically to act as an anti-aircraft radar that detects aerial predators.

The Mollusk With Eyes Made of Rock

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

The West Indian fuzzy chiton may not look like much. In fact, as a 3-inch-long mollusk sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, you probably don't notice it at all. But if you happen to be swimming above the thing, it notices you ... with eyeballs that are made of rock. And we don't mean they look like rocks, or have a rocklike texture. The chiton's eyes are made of aragonite, or a form of limestone, the same material that makes their actual shells. But instead of being strictly rock and more rock, the eyes have evolved "a layer of pigment, a retina and a lens."

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses
Discover Magazine

Phew, we thought those were chiterpes.

In other words, these small sea golems have figured out a way to see the world with the same material we use to construct buildings and roads. They don't see well, mind you, but it's enough to clamp down like a mofo when a predator comes swimming by.

Oh, and by the way: Their eyes will dissolve if you try to clean the chiton in anything mildly acidic. Because their eyes are made of limestone.

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

"I dunno, man, I just dropped acid in my eye, and the whole world turned beautiful."

Dolphins Use Holographic Imaging to See Inside You

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

Everyone loves dolphins. They're playful, lovable and intelligent, and they rarely ever kill just for the fun of it. But when they do decide to murder you, they have some state-of-the-art equipment to help them track your ass down.

You may know already that dolphins have sonar that is far superior to their vision, creating their adorable dolphin sounds and detecting how they bounce back. In fact, the sounds they hear create a kind of holographic image in their minds. As in, they perceive echoes as 3-D shapes and textures. Dolphins can "see" sound, kind of like Daredevil, or those Batman sonar goggles in The Dark Knight. And if that wasn't cool (or weird) enough, they can look right inside of you.

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The short explanation is: radioactive ocean spiders.

That is, their ultrasonic clicks penetrate flesh, giving them an X-ray view of your bones and innards. A talent that they've been known to employ when killing other creatures, because they will target vital organs when they attack.

How accurate is it? Well, tests for sensitivity show that they can distinguish a BB pellet from a kernel of corn at 50 feet. One test subject could tell the difference between two objects that differed in width by the length of a human hair from 26 feet. Oh, and they can stun fish with concentrated bursts of sound, too. That's supervillain level shit, right there.

The 6 Most Mind-Blowing Animal Senses

"One more tuna net, motherfuckers. See what happens."

Monte Richard is also a columnist for, and you can check out his blog.

For more ways animals have us beat, check out 5 Animals That Can Do Amazing Things ... With Their Penises and The 6 Most Badass Murder Weapons in the Animal Kingdom.

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