Could the Great Gray Owl Be the Key to Solving Noise Pollution?
Jackie Higgins Guests on the Book Dreams Podcast
Sometimes finding hope requires shifting our gaze from humanity. In this episode of Book Dreams, we take an up-close and uplifting look at the four-eyed spook fish, the great gray owl, the star-nosed mole, and even the bloodthirsty vampire bat. Our guest, Jackie Higgins—author of Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses—shares riveting details about the sensory capabilities of these animals: the great gray owl’s soundlessness and uncanny hearing, for instance; the spook fish’s ability to see in the lightless depths of the ocean; the star-nosed mole’s lightning-fast touch.
Jackie explains, too, how a consideration of the sensory capabilities of these creatures helps us, in turn, better understand similar talents that often lie dormant within us. Finally, we talk with Jackie about how an in-depth knowledge of the sensory capacities of other animals is helping scientists who are grappling with issues like noise pollution and sustainable development.
From the episode:
Julie Sternberg: There are so many incredible animals detailed in your book that it’s hard to choose, but I think my new favorite might be the great gray owl. You write, “On a still moonlit night where snow blankets the landscape and deadens sound, the owl swoops on its quarry and barely breaks the silence. The quietness of the [owl’s flight] is unrivaled. Its wing beat makes us sound so soft that it’s nearly imperceptible. The great gray is neither seen nor heard. And this natural specter also seems endowed with a supernatural sense. From a distance of some 30 meters or 100 feet, it can pinpoint mice or voles with uncanny precision, even those hidden beneath mounds of virgin snow.”
I want to talk about both its soundlessness and this uncanny precision in hunting. What have scientists discovered about how these owls are able to fly in silence?
Jackie: Yes, scientists are looking at this acoustic stealth—professor Nigel Peake at Cambridge University, in collaboration with other teams from around the world. They’re looking at the feathers’ structure and its shape. We’ve long known that the wings leading and trailing edges have these tiny stiff barbs that point upwards like the teeth of a comb to dampen the turbulence. But Peake is fascinated by the fact that when you run your hand and stroke an owl’s wing, it’s super luxuriant to touch. I mean, it’s a wonderful thing. It feels amazing.
So he was fascinated by this, basically this fine fluff. He looked at it under a microscope, as have others now, and he could see that each feather, they’re covered with hairs. These tiny hairs rise straight up like trees, and then they keen over to form a forest. This fine fluff also dampens the turbulence. And this basically makes sure that the owl can fly completely silently.
The reason the scientists are interested in this is to copy it. There’s this wonderful discipline called biomimicry, where scientists are looking at biology and trying to mimic what these animals or plants do for our own world. And so the aim with the owl is to make our world silent. If we could replicate what the owl’s done with its wings and with its feathers on the surface of wind turbines or computer fans, or those passenger planes that crisscross the skies, we would get rid of sound pollution.
Eve Yohalem: And how are we doing?
Jackie Higgins: We’re right at the beginning, aren’t we? They’ve patented this surface, and they’ve proved that this surface does reduce sound. So now someone’s got to kind of invest in it and replicate it on jumbo jets.
Jackie Higgins is a science writer whose first book, Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Wonder of Our Human Senses, was deemed a “masterpiece of science and nature writing” by The Washington Post. A graduate of Oxford University with an MA in zoology, Jackie has worked for Oxford Scientific Films for over a decade, as well as for National Geographic, PBS Nova, and the Discovery Channel. She has also written, directed, and produced films at the BBC Science Department.