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Time Perception in Animals Based on Pace of Life: How Fast Eyes Move

First Posted: Sep 16, 2013 02:15 PM EDT

Time perception varies in animals. For example, flies observe motion on timescales that are far finer than our own eyes can perceive. Now, scientists have discovered that an animal's ability to perceive time is linked to its pace of life.

Different animals perceive time differently. In fact, one species of tiger beetle runs faster than its eyes can see, causing it to essentially becoming blind. The beetle has to stop periodically to re-evaluate its prey's position because of this. Even in humans, athletes have been shown to quicken their eyes' ability to track moving balls during games.

In order to examine this type of time perception, the researchers employed a phenomenon called the critical flicker fusion frequency. This phenomenon is based on the maximum speed of flashes of light an individual can see before the light source is perceived as constant. This particular occurrence is the principle behind the illusion of non-flashing television, computer and cinema screens. The scientists showed that animals that would be expected to be agile possess the most refined ability to see time at high resolutions.

"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," said Kevin Healy, the lead author of the study, in a news release.

The scientists found that small-bodied animals with fast metabolic rates, such as birds, perceive more information in a unit of time. This makes them perceive time more slowly than large-bodied animals with slow metabolic rates, such as large turtles. That's not all they found, though.

"Animals may also use variation in time perception to send covert signals, for example, many species using flashing lights as signals, such as fireflies and many deep-sea animals," said Luke McNally of the University of Edinburgh in a news release. "Larger and slower predator species may not be able to decode these signals if their visual system isn't fast enough, giving the signalers a secret channel of communication."

The findings are important for not only understanding visual systems in animals, but also giving some insight into their behavior. In addition, it reveals how creatures such as flies are able to avoid predators.

The findings are published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

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