Thesis Info

Thesis Title
Other-Worlds: encounters with the visual perception of lungfishes through science and art
Audrey Appudurai
2nd Author
3rd Author
Doctor of Philosophy
Number of Pages
The University of Western Australia
Thesis Supervisor
Dr. Ionat Zurr
Supervisor e-mail
ionat.zurr AT
Other Supervisor(s)
Prof. Shaun P. Collin
Language(s) of Thesis
Department / Discipline
School of Anatomy, Physiology & Human Biology, School of Animal Biology
Languages Familiar to Author
URL where full thesis can be found
Biological arts; Dipnoi; Colour vision; Art and science; Interdisciplinary research; Visual perception; Animal studies; Human-animal studies
Abstract: 200-500 words
Lungfishes are large, freshwater, lobe-finned fishes that have the ability to breathe both dissolved and atmospheric oxygen through gills and “primitive” lungs, respectively. Six species of lungfishes remain worldwide; four in Africa (Protopterus spp.), one in South America (Lepidosiren paradoxa) and one in Australia (Neoceratous forsteri). Lungfishes are the closest living descendants of the ancestors of all terrestrial vertebrates, and are vital to the study of the evolution of vision in tetrapods because of their association with animals that made the remarkable transition from water onto land. This unique interdisciplinary study explores the visual perception and experience of lungfishes through biological science and visual art, while also tracing the history of human cultural interactions with this significant animal. Scientific data generated through anatomical, electrophysiological and behavioural experimentation contributes to the emerging field of lungfish visual ecology, and artistic research provides a more sensorial speculation of the lungfish visual experience in order to reflect on how we (humans) produce knowledge of non-humans and the limitations of these methods. To begin, a cultural history of non-human animal visual perception is investigated to understand and acknowledge the limitations of technologies and our anthropocentric perception of reality. Human narratives from the nineteenth century to present day are traced to reveal the similarities and differences in previous attempts to uncover non-human animal perceptual capabilities, with a particular focus on Jakob von Uexküll and his concept of the Umwelt. A collaborative art project titled ‘Inperception’ (2012) that endeavoured to interpret the Umwelten of Australian lungfishes through contemporary scientific knowledge and art is discussed as a case study. Diverse cultural narratives are discussed, revealing a long history of the lungfish as an “in-between” and “monstrous” animal. This thesis shows that human understandings of lungfishes are influenced by a myriad of factors that include, but are not limited to, the evaluation of scientific data. Personal and cultural biases effect how we make sense of non-human “Others”. These inescapable biases, formed by ingrained beliefs, assumptions and ideologies, force a particular understanding between what we “see” and what we “know” about lungfishes. The crucial importance of recognising these biases and anthropocentric limitations in any attempt to understand the lungfish Umwelt and the historical and cultural contexts of scientific exploration more broadly is revealed. Having established the limitations and complexities involved in “knowing” the perception of a non-human “Other”, the biological “machinery” of the lungfish visual perception is described by two scientific studies. The first presents the results of anatomical investigations of the retinal photoreceptor cells of two previously unexamined species, P. dolloi and L. paradoxa, in order to determine their capacity for colour vision. These findings were compared with previous studies of N. fosteri in order to present a more comprehensive understanding of the visual ecology of the three lungfish genera. Previous anatomical studies of N. forsteri have shown that lungfishes possess the retinal machinery to process colour. This study revealed the presence and ultrastructure of one rod and two cone photoreceptor types in juvenile P. dolloi and characterised one rod and one cone photoreceptor type in L. paradoxa. The topographical distribution of the red cone in a juvenile P. dolloi is also described. The presence of large oil droplets (or intracellular inclusions that act as filters) in all three species suggests that the lungfish visual system is adapted for high sensitivity. The absence of double cones in all three species however, strongly suggests that double cones may have developed after the evolutionary separation of tetrapods from P. dolloi. In addition, the characterisation of the retinal machinery of L. paradoxa by this study implies that, although both N. fosteri and P. dolloi possess the machinery to process colour, L. paradoxa does not have the potential for colour vision. The second scientific study investigated the visual perception of a unique group of juvenile N. forsteri whose eyes were not externally visible. New findings are presented that begin to uncover how a unique group of fish experience the world without the ability to form images, resulting from behavioural, circadian, electrophysiological and anatomical studies that compared these abnormal N. forsteri with normal Australian lungfishes. The abnormal fishes all possessed subcutaneous eyes capable of photo-transduction, although possibly not spatial vision. Clear corneas were absent in the eyes of all these abnormal N. forsteri, although they all possessed the retina and photoreceptor complement typical of their species. Variation in the functional integrity of the eye between individuals was evident however, as behavioural phototaxis was not demonstrated by all specimens. Finally, a number of artworks and exhibitions generated through the scientific and artistic research that extended and complicated issues surrounding the lungfish Umwelt are discussed. Presented chronologically, these creative outcomes reveal my shifting understandings of the limitations of technology, objectivity and human perception and cognition in attempting to interpret the Umwelt of such a different animal. The first set of artworks, ‘Third Eye’ and ‘In Focus’, produced in 2013 present the “machinery” of the lungfish eye generated through biological dissection, macro-photography and light microscopy. These black and white, abstracted micrographs of retinae and photoreceptors are aestheticised scientific representations produced in my attempt to discover the “truth” of the lungfish eye. A series of sculptural works produced in 2014 and collectively titled ‘The Forms’ explores role of aesthetics and manipulation in the production and presentation of scientific images through transmission electron microscopy (TEM), camera-less photography (photograms) and material manipulation. My frustrated attempts to negotiate the gaps between technology, measurement, representation and experience are manifest in these objects. Most recently, the 2015 multi-media exhibition, ‘Cernentia: exploring the visual perception of lungfishes without eyes’ provided visitors with a multi-sensorial insight into the investigation of the abnormal N. forsteri visual system and a speculative experience of the perceptual world of these unique animals. Collectively, these artworks trace my own journey with lungfishes and offer new encounters with the lungfish Umwelt outside of the mechanistic realm of biological science. Importantly, they reveal the anthropocentric lens through which an Umwelt of a non-human animal “Other” is explored. This unique interdisciplinary thesis unravels the variety and complexities of the visual perception of an important group of non-human animals – lungfishes. The methodologies of three disparate disciplines – biological science, history and visual art – are integrated in an attempt to understand the complexity of how non-human animals perceive their environment, whilst recognising the limitations of each discipline. In a society which is characterised by increasing specialisation, there is a need for scholars who can communicate and speculate on the “Other” animal from a rigorous and highly informed scientific and cultural/artistic position. The unique interdisciplinary and inter-sensory approach offered by this thesis is therefore, vital when human relations with our ecology are in crisis and in need of re-negotiation.