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Bizarre Alien Senses
"I have eight other senses; but I'd give them all up, even smision, just to experience taste."
Bender, Futurama

One way to make an alien creature seem bizarre to human audiences is to have it detect the world around it with a different array of biological senses than us. Often they're depicted as using sensory mechanisms found in other Earth species, such as echolocation, thermographic vision, or sensitivity to electrical impulses or vibrations. More rarely, writers will equip aliens with biological versions of radar or other technological sensors, or they'll invent senses that discern esoteric forces such as psychic energy.

Senses that are found in we humans are often absent or much-reduced in beings equipped with bizarre alien senses. On film, this trope may be depicted with Point of View shots using image-distorting or false-color effects. Most commonly seen in Science Fiction, but occasionally in other Speculative Fiction genres.

A subtrope of Bizarre Alien Biology. Frequently correlated with Eyeless Face. Contrast Blindfolded Vision, in which someone denied their normal eyesight relies on other sensory modes, or Super Senses, when normal human senses are enhanced. For a different sort of alien feeling, see Inhuman Emotion.

When the bizarreness applies to the way the alien communicates, it's Starfish Language.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Comic Books  

  • In the "vegetable sex" scene from Saga of the Swamp Thing, Abigail temporarily experiences Swamp Thing's ability to sense life force, and perceives the wetlands as a shimmering field of glowing vegetation, dotted with bright life-sparks of animals.
  • In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Edward Hyde can see people's body heat including Griffin's.
  • Superman has all kinds of visions, not taking into account heat. X-Ray, microscopic, soul (Yeah that's a thing now.)
  • When the Jason Macendale version of the Hobgoblin, a Spider-Man villain, got turned into a demon, he noted that colors were all wrong.

     Fan Fic  

  • Eternal Flowers: Seeing as Persocoms are considered another type of lifeformů the list includes sensing not only wifi and radio waves, but mircowaves and even magic as well.
  • In ''Walk Through the Valley'' by Vathara, the at least three species of animal on the Death World Satoyama can sense and generate EMPs. Through LEGO Genetics, Hiko and Kenshin gain this ability and then some.
  • Ponies in the Triptych Continuum possess feel, which allows them to pick up on active magic use and lingering traces for the workings of their own race, along with helping them learn how new tricks can be done. Most ponies can improve the quality of this sense through practice, although a few seem to be stuck in the basement. It's presumed that the Princesses possess all three versions. She does as well, but only one at a time.

     Film  

  • The ravenous flying beasts from Pitch Black use echolocation, which is depicted on-screen as textured pixel-clouds that take on the shapes of objects.
  • In the Tremors franchise, Graboids pinpoint their prey using sound and other vibrations, while Shriekers and Ass-Blasters use heat vision that's enhanced by blasts of heat emanating from their mouths.
  • In the Predator film series, the title aliens have infrared vision. This is depicted onscreen by coloring what they see based on the temperature of objects: black = cold, white = hot, and other colors in between.
    • They actually see in the near infrared, not thermal infrared. Without their helmet, they can easily detect heat differentials in their surroundings but are unable to easily distinguish among objects of the same relative temperature. Their helmet includes circuitry that filters out ambient heat, allowing them to see things with greater clarity and detail (represented in the movie by using a thermal infrared camera). Coincidentally, if you've ever wondered why nothing on earth has developed anything similar, it's because that, as far as the eye's pigment molecules are concerned, light energy and heat energy are pretty much the same thing. The long-short is that if we saw in the infrared, our eyes would be completely overwhelmed by heat signatures being misinterpreted as light sources.
    • All the stranger, then, that their world is speculated (and shown) to be a very hot desert-like planet.
    • In the sequels, video games, and spinoff films, even this is thrown for a loop. When the Predators have reason to believe humans are using their vision's weaknesses against them, they reveal that their helmets have technology in them that gives them ''further'' forms of vision, such as sonar, backscatter x-ray, and some kind of metal detection. Given the characterization that Predators tend to receive, it rarely feels as arbitrary as it sounds.
  • Wolfen was probably the first film to incorporate thermographic footage to represent this trope.
  • The invaders from The Darkest Hour sense electricity. This means they can't see through glass.
  • Men In Black III's Griffin lives in 5 dimentions, which gives him a rather interesting view of time in general.
  • In the film K-PAX, mental patient/possible alien "prot" (Kevin Spacey) is confirmed early on as being able to somehow detect infrared wavelengths of light.
  • The Fly (1958): During The Reveal in which his wife pulls off his hood, Andre's P-O-V is briefly shown, and he sees dozens of simultaneous images of her screaming face through his fly-head's compound eyes.
  • In Jaws: The Revenge, the shark-hunters disorient the great white using a device that confuses its electroreceptive sense.

     Literature  

  • In Piers Anthony's Omnivore, the fungus-derived mantas use biological radar to "see" their surroundings.
  • In Lords and Ladies, elves are sensitive to magnetic fields, thus explaining their aversion to iron which distorts and "blinds" such senses.
    • Another Discworld example: golems, or at least Mr. Pump, are sensitive to something called "Karmic Signature", which Pump did not see fit to explain. They can also detect one another "singing" underground, through thousands of feet of soil.
  • Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth setting gives us the insectoid Thranx, who have a "Faz" sense granted by their antennae. Apparently, the antennae are sensitive to air currents.
  • The Rigellians in the Lensman books use a bizarre sense that gives a worldview much like the best solid-modeling programs. They can even see things like the innermost components of shielded power reactors.
    • The flip side of this is that they rely exclusively on that sense and lack both sight and hearing. In consequence, it's sheer torture for other species to spend time in their cities, because their cars have no windows, their buildings have no sources of light and they make no attempt whatsoever to avoid loud noises... a visit to Rigel therefore involves a great deal of sitting around in the dark being startled by loud bangs, screams and howls of various kinds.
  • The Mad Scientist Travnicek in Wild Cards, after his infection due to Typhoid Croyd, develops a ring of unnatural, horn-like sensory organs around his neck.
  • In the Dragaera novels, the tendrils on the necks of dragons are sensory structures that detect other creatures' psychic energies.
  • The Lizards of World War can see a few colors in the infrared spectrum.
  • The creators of the Descolada in Children of the Mind are also implied to have this.
  • The Sphynxian Treecats of the Honor Harrington universe are telepathic and empathic, and are evidently unique in the universe in that trait.
  • On Gor, the Priest-Kings are an alien insectoid race which "talk," "hear," and mostly "see" by scent, which they perceive via their antennae.
  • In "Aftermath", a short story from The Dresden Files, the "turtlenecks" use sonar to navigate in the dark.
    • Not quite a different sense, but the scene in White Night in which Harry, hiding from enemies in a large pitch-black room, is shown his surroundings by Lash using mentally-projected outlines of his environment somewhat resembles this trope. It gets particularly alien when he immediately loses 'sight' of an object he throws (because Lash can't tell where it is once he's stopped touching it).
  • The aliens in Isaac Asimov's short story "The Secret Sense" are very sensitive to electric fields, but have comparatively weak hearing and color vision. The brain cells involved are present in humans but do not function. The story centers around a man who is temporarily given the ability to use this sense to experience the electromagnetic equivalent of a musical performance, but the process eventually kills the cells, depriving him of the secret sense permanently. The alien in the story demonstrates this because he wants the human to shut up and stop talking about Earth music.
  • The extinct aliens in John Brunner's Total Eclipse were able to sense electric fields. A minor plot point is the protagonist reasoning that the aliens must have lived in constant terror of thunderstorms. He is therefore able to deduce that a bizarre bellows-like gizmo the archaeologists found must have been a device for predicting the weather.
  • Kdatlyno from the Known Space Verse "see" via radar.
  • In Perdido Street Station, the eyeless slake-moths can smell and taste the psychic energies of sentient creatures' dreams.
  • Much is made of how dogs and foxes perceive things through their noses in ways humans can barely understand in The Fox and the Hound, and Copper the dog's eyesight is so bad that he seems to consider clear colour vision a Bizarre Human Sense.
  • Expedition: Sonar seems to be the primary sensory input for Darwin IV species.
  • Star Wars Expanded Universe: Both Saba and Tesar Sabatyne can see in infrared, being Barabels.
  • In the Hal Clement short story "Uncommon Sense", the alien creatures on an airless world see/smell through pinhole camera eyes. The molecules that escape from objects travel in straight lines, so they can be resolved into a meaningful image, which the beings "see". Does that volatile hunk of rare metal have a pungent odor—or a brilliant color?
  • In the Animorphs series Andalites are said to have the ability to keep time perfectly and are able to tell cardinal directions. Also, according to Ax, their stalk eyes can see into the infrared spectrum.
  • The Slan in Star Carrier: Deep Space see almost exclusively by echolocation. (They do have light-detecting organs, but they can only detect it: they can't really interpret it the way smarter Earth animals do.) This proves a disadvantage during space combat: hull breaches mean air leaks out of the ship, meaning the Slan can't see or communicate. It also means that they don't really understand the concept of "space". It took them a really long time to find out about the existence of stars, and only when they built photosensitive devices that translate visual images into understandable sounds. Despite being a space-faring race, they still perceive space as a really-really big cave with a few habitable "islands" (i.e. planets) scattered in it. They don't quite understand the technology they use, implying that someone gave it to them. When they first meet a human female face-to-face (sort of), their captain tries to use echolocation to figure out human organs. He's confused why the human sound-emitting organ (mouth) doesn't have the same flexibility as the Slan equivalents. He tries to find the sound-receiving organs and, ignoring the ears, settles on boobs (also noting they're not very flexible). When contacting Grey, the Slan captain assumes that Grey is blind because he lacks the "sound-receiving organs".
  • According to some Star Trek Expanded Universe novels, Andorian antennae aren't just for show. They allow Andorians to have a limited "electro-vision", which is how an Andorian crewmember aboard the DS9 is able to detect a shrouded Jem'Hadar.
  • The Spiders in Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky have a larger visible spectrum of light than humans, referring to infrared frequencies as "far-red" and ultraviolet as "far-blue". Human display technologies, designed only to display what we can see, look like simple and underdeveloped technology to them, despite our otherwise advanced capabilities. Some Spider dwellings also appear dark to us, due to being lit with light outside our visible spectrum. On one occasion, Spiders are also shown to be able to "hear" vibrations in the ground through their feet.

     Live Action Television  

  • In Alien Planet (an adaptation of Wayne Barlowe's Expedition), the life forms of Darwin IV lack eyes and rely on a combination of sonar and thermographic senses to discern their environment. Justified as a consequence of Darwin IV's having been extremely foggy in the recent evolutionary past, which made eyesight a liability.
  • The Skitters on Falling Skies communicate with radio waves, which both they and the children they've Harnessed can detect.
  • The "future predators" on Primeval use echolocation, represented on-screen with distorted false-color imagery and concentric, pulsing rings of sonic energy.
  • In Doctor Who, the Doctor has some kind of "Time Sense" relating to whether or not an event is irrevocably supposed to happen. He has also been shown to be able to slow down his own perception of time. In addition to that, he can taste and smell a host of things that humans can't, such as the blood group in a sample of blood and how old an object is.
  • Occasionally, a Police Procedural will illustrate a police dog's Bizarre Canine Senses using CGI light-trails that represent the trail of odor it's following.

     Play By Post Games  

  • Leyline: Alexis can echolocate, 'seeing' the world through sonar.

     Tabletop Games  

  • In early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, many monsters had infravision (seeing in infrared), such as bugbears, dragons, dwarves, elves, gnolls, gnomes, goblins, Stout halflings, imps, orcs, quasits and trolls.
    • Much more rarely, some monsters had ultravision (seeing in ultraviolet), such as bone devils and ice devils.
    • Later editions simplified these two vision-types to Darkvision.
    • Other D&D senses include Blindsense (several forms) and Tremorsense.
  • Shadowrun: Certain Awakened creatures have thermographic (infrared) vision, including dwarves, trolls, dragons, vampires, centaurs, cerberus hounds and fomorians.
  • Native creatures of the Jorune game setting have no eyes, sensing their surroundings by an awareness of mystical energies.
  • Traveller Double Adventure The Chamax Plague/Horde: The Chamax have two sensory abilities humans don't have. First, they can detect radio waves and use triangulation to determine their point of origin. Second, they have a limited ability to detect life, which they use to search for food.

     Video Games  

  • The Protheans in the Mass Effect universe had the ability to read the memories of other living beings and even inanimate objects by perceiving "experience markers". This is revealed by the Prothean squadmate Javik in Mass Effect 3.
  • The Orz from Star Control appear to smell their environment. The Arilou also work hard to keep something from smelling the Humans, which imply they have a similar means of detection, mechanical or not.
    • The Orz don't actually smell as their primary sense, it's just the least-wrong translation possible for the concept of exactly how they are sensing their surroundings. Worth noting, the Orz are heavily implied to be an Eldritch Abomination. A very friendly one. Don't ask them about the Androsynth.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic II, the team bounty hunter can give a short lecture on the Bith (the bulb-headed aliens that tend to be musicians in most bars). Apparently their aural perception covers a much wider spectrum than humans', including some radio signals. However, this makes them extra vulnerable to noise and a flashbang will kill them messily.
  • The Progenitors in Sid Meiers Alpha Centauri can sense and manipulate a variety of fields, including electromagnetism. They communicate through "altering," too. While humans generate patterns of sounds, progenitors alter existing background noise and it's how they alter those sounds that determines meaning.
  • Ecco The Dolphin, being a toothed cetacean, can 'look beyond his eyes with his song' i.e. use echolocation. It's depicted as summoning a map of the area. There's a level in the second game called Sea of Darkness that requires echolocation to navigate, depicted by lightening the area every time Ecco sings.
  • Discworld Noir: Gaspode teaches Lewton how to use werewolf "nasal vision".
  • Oddworld: Lacking eyes, Scrabs sense electrical impulses to find their prey, and Paramites navigate primarily through smell, rather than vision.
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic: All of Vector's senses are sharper than those of an ordinary human, and that's not even counting the ones that humans don't even have in the first place.

     Web Comics  

     Western Animation  

  • As Wildmutt, Ben 10 lacks eyes, yet still experiences "images" of what's around him. This perception is probably scent-based, as the images grow sharper when he takes a breath.
    • Clockwork from Ben 10: Ultimate Alien has a temporal sense that sees into the past. He can project this effect into a whole area by winding the key on his head.
  • Non-alien example: When the students from The Magic School Bus are turned into bats, they experience what echolocation is like, perceiving strobe-like flashing views of their surroundings each time they emit a sonar-cry.
  • Avatar The Last Air Bender: Toph's ability to "see" using Earthbending. It is very unusual when you think about it since it requires forming "images" through contact with the ground. The closest equivalent in real life would be how snakes and elephants can detect low-frequency sounds through vibrations in the ground as well.

     Real Life  

  • Some fishes can sense electricity. Such electroreception is found in lampreys, cartilaginous fishes (sharks, rays, chimeras) and in some varieties of bony fish.
    • The platypus has this too, as does at least one species of freshwater dolphin.
  • Echolocation is well-known in bats and toothed cetaceans. Shrews also use this means of sensing, as do cave swiftlets and oilbirds.
    • Subverted with flying foxes and baleen whales, which don't use sonar even though most people assume all bats or whales do.
    • Some humans have been able to develop an echolocation sense after their eyesight was permanently impaired.
  • Thermographic "vision" is found in pit vipers, many boas and pythons, and vampire bats.
  • On the other end of the scale from thermovision is UV vision, common to insects and other arthropods.
  • The eyes of Mantis Shrimp have 12 types of cells to detect light of different color, which is four times as many as human eyes have, giving them a range of colors from Ultraviolet to possibly Infrared. In addition, they also have 4 more types of cells that detect other aspects of light than color, like polarization. This allows them to see through the glare of light reflections and even to objects that are perfectly transparent. While still retaining their ability to see colors behind them.
  • Fish detect motion in the water with their lateral lines.
  • Magnetoception, the ability to detect magnetic fields, is found in a wide variety of creatures, from certain kinds of bacteria to certain kinds of mammals. Homing pigeons are particularly well known for it.
  • The whiskers of cats and other mammals are merely a tuned-up human sense (touch), but as with dogs' noses, they seem almost to be a separate sense.
  • The O Ther Wiki has a whole page dedicated to this, as well as mentions of other human senses not typically considered.


    Sensory IndexMy Sensors Indicate You Want to Tap That
Bizarre Alien ReproductionAlien TropesBizarre Alien Sexes
Bizarre Alien ReproductionBizarre Alien BiologyBizarre Alien Sexes
Bizarre Alien ReproductionSnowclonesBizarre Alien Sexes
Bizarre Alien ReproductionSpeculative Fiction TropesBizarre Alien Sexes

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