Canine compass: Earth’s magnetic field provides ‘universal reference’ for dogs to navigate

They say a dog will always find his way home – and now a new study suggests this incredible feat is the result of our four-legged friends’ remarkable sensitivity to the Earth’s geomagnetic field. A group of researchers from the Czech University of Life Sciences and Virginia Tech tracked the navigation abilities of 27 different dogs from 10 breeds over three years.

The scientists attached a GPS collar and camera mount to each dog and periodically released them from their leash during walks in a forested area.

After being released, each dog ran deeper into the woods, and after a certain distance they were called back to their owners.

At this point they all conducted what researchers described as a ‘compass run.’

This entailed a short dash of approximately 65ft (20m) that closely tracked with the Earth’s north-south geomagnetic axis.

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Researchers are now convinced this helped the dogs orient themselves for the return trip.

The researchers wrote in a summary of their findings in the online journal eLife: “It is unlikely that the direct involvement of visual, olfactory or celestial cues can explain the highly stereotyped and consistent ~north south alignment of the compass run.

“For example, the forested habitat and dense vegetation of the study sites make visual piloting unreliable and, in many cases, not possible.”

After this initial compass run, dogs worked their way back relying on two particular forms of navigation.

Approximately 59 percent of the dogs switched to scent-based navigation, what the researchers called ‘tracking’.

Approximately another 32 percent relied on physical landmarks and other visual information, which the researchers described as ‘scouting’.

Eight percent of the dogs used a mix of tracking and scouting behaviours to work their way back through the forest to their owners.

The walks took place over a three-year period between 2014 and 2017 and were conducted in a variety of different weather conditions.

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None of these appeared to have any influence on the dog’s behaviour.

Past research has shown dogs also mark their territory and defecate in alignment with the north-south geomagnetic axis.

One possible explanation for the sensitivity to geomagnetic fields could be a protein called cryptochrome-1.

This has been shown to be influenced by the Earth’s magnetic fields.

A number of other animals have similar sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field, including blind mole-rats, whales, and even bees.

The researchers expect future research can clarify more about how these sensitivities affect navigation, potentially by providing a ‘universal reference frame.’

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