News

Time perception varies between animals

Edinburgh scientists have helped to show how animals’ ability to perceive time is linked to their pace of life.

Their findings show that small-bodied animals with fast metabolic rates can take in more information over a set unit of time compared with large-bodied animals with slow metabolic rates.

In this way, small animals so experience time more slowly.

Quick-acting flies

The findings help explain how flies are skilled at avoiding rolled-up newspapers - because they see in finer timescales than people, much like Keanu Reeves’ character avoids bullets in the popular film The Matrix.

In contrast, one species of tiger beetle runs faster than its eyes can keep up, causing it to stop periodically to re-evaluate its prey’s position.

Variation can be found between humans, with athletes having been shown to quicken their eyes’ ability to track moving balls during games.

Link to agility

The study, published Animal Behaviour, was carried out with Trinity College Dublin and the University of St Andrews.

Time perception was shown to vary across all animals, using a phenomenon based on the frequency at which flashing lights can be perceived as a single beam.

This frequency varies between animals, and it is the principle behind non-flickering television, computer and cinema screens.

The researchers showed that agile animals have the most refined ability to see time at high resolutions.

Many species using flashing lights as signals, such as fireflies and many deep-sea animals. Larger and slower predators may not be able to decode these signals, giving the signallers a secret channel of communication.

Dr Luke McNallySchool of Biological Sciences