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Research Shows Which Animals Perceive Time the Fastest

Dragonflies and blow flies have the highest temporal perception, while starfish have the lowest

Holden Galusha

Holden Galusha is the associate editor for Lab Manager. He was a freelance contributing writer for Lab Manager before being invited to join the team full-time. Previously, he was the...

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In the largest study of its kind yet, new research has demonstrated that animals which perceive time the fastest are either small, flying, or predatory marine animals. Having fast temporal perception enables a species to perceive quick changes in their environment, which is helpful to both prey and predator. These findings were presented Dec. 21 at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting by Kevin Healy, PhD, of the University of Galway.

This new research is the result of an analysis on several previous studies of temporal perception. These studies used flickering light experiments, in which a light flickered and recorded how quickly the optic nerve sent information to the brain via electroretinograms, thus allowing the researchers to determine how quickly the light was perceived. This perception rate is called critical flicker fusion frequency.

According to the news release by the British Ecological Society, insects like blow flies and dragonflies had the fastest temporal perception with vision that could operate at 300hz—that is, able to see changes 300 times a second—nearly five times faster than a human’s temporal perception speed of 65hz. The crown-of-thorns starfish had the slowest temporal perception at just 0.7hz, or about once per second

But what advantage do blow flies and dragonflies have as a result of their temporal perception? “Having fast vision helps a species perceive rapid changes in the environment,” Healy explained. “Such detailed perception of changes is very useful if you move quickly or need to pinpoint the trajectory of moving prey.”

“By looking at such a wide range of animals,” Healy continued, “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.”

Surprisingly, the research also indicates that terrestrial predators perceive time slowly relative to aquatic predators. The researchers theorize that this is because prey in aquatic environments can constantly move across all three dimensions, while terrestrial prey are mostly limited to moving across the ground. To account for the additional dimension of movement, aquatic predators have faster temporal perception to more accurately predict where the prey will move.