Eye Of The Beast
The next time a panther stares you down, just try to imagine, what the world looks like from its point of view
MORNING ON MY SISTER’S ILLINOIS FARM. MY EYES OPEN AND I AM SURROUNDED BY other eyes. Three people, one dog, four cats. We all have predator’s eyes–forward facing with binocular vision–and move to the kitchen, where breakfast is prey. We humans, with our very color-sensitive eyes, are searching the cupboard. The Folger’s coffee jar is bright red so we can find it fast. The little collie mix’s round pupils are searching out breakfast, too, by following the human motions. It can see yellow and blue but can’t tell red from green. The barn cats slink along the counter. Their vertical pupils, constricted ovals in the daylight, scan a 287-degree field of vision for the kill. It comes when the opener pierces the little round can. Outside, the Angus cattle are so black it is hard to see that they even have eyes. And the tiny goats have amber eyes with horizontal pupils set on the sides of their heads. This lets them see what’s coming around their flanks. They are, in the natural world, prey. Then there’s the American toad, Bufo americanis, which will eventually turn up by the pump. It’ll hunt crawlies. But you’d have to be an arcane-knowledge freak to know that humans need eight to 10 times more light than a toad does to see a worm at night, according to studies done at the University of Helsinki. Or that the red-tailed hawk that lives on the power-line tower can, on a clear day; see a rabbit a mile. We humans are innately cued to study one another’s eyes. Dilated pupils can mean the person you’re looking at really likes you. Or it can mean you’re standing in the dark. Beady little eyes equal distaste or disdain. Or the sun is behind you.
We are also wired to adore and protect any face with what the Germans call kinderschema–the flat faces, snub noses, and big eyes of a human infant. A baby’s eyes take up about a third of its entire face. In adults, eyes take up about a fifth. In fact, we’re born with nearly adult-sized eyes. Our faces grow up around them. Kinderschema, is the appeal of that puppy in the window or the kitten your kid brings home. Big eyes reach out. At an animal shelter a light-colored animal, peering out. with big, dark eyes, will usually find a home before the black one, whose eyes, like those of my sister’s Angus, disappear into the body.
My fascination with animal eyes goes back to February nights in the 1950s, when I, the older daughter ora father with no sons, would stand in the barn and help midwife piglets into the world. I rubbed them down, got the stuff out of their mouths. But it was when their eyes opened that the piglets were, to my eyes, really there.
Two kinds of eyes rule in the animal kingdom: directional eyes, which only sense light and belong to worms and other bitty creatures, and image-forming eyes, found in certain mollusks, bivalves, most arthropods, and nearly all vertebrates. The giant squid, a cephalopod, has image-forming peepers bigger than basketballs.
How eyeballs sit in an animal’s head is also important. The Philippine tarsier, a nocturnal monkey; has eyes so big they don’t move at all in their sockets. Like an owl, it’ll turn its whole head to look around. At the other end, a chameleon, with eyes on stalks, can hold its head still and swivel those peepers around like periscopes.
The whole business of color vision is murky and controversial. The human retina has 125 million thin, straight rods that see in black and white, and 7 million fat little cones that examine colors in bright light. Primates have pretty good color vision. Dogs and cats so-so. Bees can see a color past violet that we cannot see, but they can’t see red. Ants can’t see red either. Hummingbirds like red best. And prairie dogs have some color vision but can’t tell red from green. What color vision means to animals is tricky science, because while we can examine the comparative anatomy of eyes, it’s much more complicated to determine how an individual species’ central nervous system and brain interpret what the eye sees. Suffice it to say that Homo sapiens are the only creatures that find it necessary to stand around the paint sample section of Home Depot for two hours on a Saturday morning.
I’d give the award for most versatile eyes to the oak toad, which, as it swallows, moves its eyeballs back into the roof of its mouth to help push food down its throat. The most useful adaptation goes to the burrowing mole skink, which has a little picture window in its eyelid so it can look around without opening its eyes. The shark protects its eyes during an attack by rolling them back in its head. The horned toad, when threatened, can squirt blood from its eyes into an enemy’s face.
The worst eyesight for a large animal probably belongs to the rhinoceros. From 15 feet it can’t tell a man from a tree, and will charge big rocks. To see how a rhino sees, squint until your eyelashes are woven together. Of course, compared with the possum that lives under the front porch of my house in Washington, D.C., the rhino could probably read the New York Times.
During mornings on my “city farm,” I often breakfast with a squirrel. It has eyes on the sides of its head like all prey animals and sits on the air conditioner and stares at me, sideways with one big eye, until I put out some peanuts. If I’m slow, it stares harder to catch my eye.
World-renowned photographer James Balog, whose pictures grace these pages, has made an art of catching the eyes of wild animals. In his just-released book, Animal, Balog writes, “Animals are whole unto themselves, completely poised in an existence bequeathed by 5 billion years of evolutionary rhythm, their minds and spirits focused. To look into the eyes of many animals, particularly the big ones like bear and elephant, is to sense a degree of calm and certainty rarely felt in people.” Balog believes that his stylized portraiture yielded an enormous dividend. “It led me into the secret labyrinth of the animal mind, revealing that intangible yet unmistakable force called consciousness.”
I’d rather walk on glass than address the scientific debate on animal consciousness. I only know that if you grow up among and around all kinds of animals, as little farm girls do, you believe that you can tell what animals are thinking when you look at them and they look at you. When I was a girl, I shot a ruby-crowned kinglet with a BB gun. It died in my hand. Its eyes died last. I never shot a gun again.
The artic bird has poor binocular vision and must tilt its head laterally to look up or down. During dives, a special membrane protects its eyes underwater. “A translucent eyelid closes,” says Anita Schiavoni-Gibbons, maven to a colony of 69 rambunctious rockhoppers at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.
The big cat’s eyes glow from moonlight reflected off an iridescent membrane in the retina. A motions of prey shift a panther into hunting mode,” says Jill Mellen of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando.
The visual acuity of the raptor is four times greater than that of a human. And it sees fast. “The eyes have to compensate as it dives at speeds of up to 200 mph at prey,” says Bill Burnham of the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.
Like a human, this primate judges distance well because of good binocular vision. When you look into its eyes, says Mike Bates of the San Diego Zoo, “it seems more pensive than the other apes. You see the eyes sparkle. The cogs are turning.”
MANDRILL In threatening situations, the red-and-blue face of this baboon brightens and it makes direct eye contact in an attempt to scare off a nemesis. If that fails, it closes its eyes, revealing frightening white eyelids, and opens its mouth wide to show 4-inch canines.
GIANT PANDA Deep black patches around small eyes make them appear larger, giving the anything-but-cuddly creature a fierce visage during confrontations. “Ironically, this same characteristic endears pandas to humans because we tend to be drawn to animals with big eyes,” says the San Diego Zoo’s Ron Swaisgood.
ASIAN ELEPHANT The lumbering herbivore can’t see much past 100 yards, but its eyes are well protected for the task of foraging. In thick undergrowth. The eyeballs recede under Impenetrable layers of tough skin. “Elephants sometimes appear-to weep because they have an abundance of fluid lubricating a nictitating membrane that helps keep the cornea free of debris,” says Alan Roocroft of the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
WYOMING TOAD High-rise eyes set off to the sides allow the nearsighted amphibian a wide field of vision to scan for insect prey. “It doesn’t have to see any farther than its tongue can reach-a couple of inches,” says Joseph Collins of the Kansas Biological Survey.
(“EYE OF THE BEAST,” PAGE 94, PHOTOGRAPHER) first explored nature in his hometown of Watchung, NewJersey. “As a 12-year-old with a shotgun on my shoulder, looking for animals, I could wander all day and only cross the road every so often,” Balog says. The town’s transformation from rural wildlands to New York City suburb had a big impact on the boy-turned-man. “My adult work became a process of looking at wilderness side by side with civilization,” he says. Balog, now based in Boulder, Colorado, has contributed to National Geographic, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair.
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