Study Says Dogs May Use Earth’s Magnetic Field to Take Short Cuts

The navigational skills of animals is a fascinating subject. While humans have compasses, maps, and satellite navigation systems at their disposal yet can still get lost, many animals have a natural ability to find their way around. Just two examples are birds that fly thousands of miles around the globe during migration season, and cats ending up in cars, traveling hundreds of miles, and then finding their way back home. Both are impressive feats that have intrigued scientists. While there have been many studies into the navigational skills of various animals, only a handful of studies have involved canines. Scientists now believe that dogs may use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate unfamiliar areas, says Science Mag.

Interest in the New Studies from Scientists

The studies into dog’s navigational abilities have captured the interest of scientists across the globe. Catherine Lohmann is a biologist at the University of North Carolina, and her specialist field of study is the navigation of turtles using magnetoreception. She says that while there are many studies into the navigational abilities of animals, there has been much less interest in dogs. Therefore, the findings of the most recent studies are a first for dogs. Another scientist who has taken an interest in the dog studies is Richard Holland, a biologist at Bangor University. His work focuses on the navigation of birds. Holland believes that the latest studies give an insight into how dogs create a picture of the space around them.

Previous Studies

Before recent research, some previous studies have taken a look at whether dogs can perceive the Earth’s magnetic field. Hynek Burda conducted one such study in 2013. Burda is a sensory ecologist specializing in magnetic reception, and he works at the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague. Burda’s study showed that dogs urinate and defecate to mark and recognize territory. This helps them navigate north and south and determine their location in relation to other areas. However, this is a stationary alignment, which is a different concept to navigation.

The New Study into Dogs Using the Earth’s Magnetic Field

The study conducted by Burda inspired his graduate student, Katerina Benediktova, to conduct a new study, the results of which are published on eLife Sciences. In the first stage of the study, Benediktova put GPS trackers and video cameras on four dogs. She then took the dogs to the forest. On average, the dogs would run fro 400 meters to chase the scent of an animal. On studying the data from the GPS trackers, Benediktova found that the dogs displayed two types of behavior when returning to their owner. The first behavior is dubbed tracking, which is when the dogs simply retraced the original route they had taken. This possibly involved them using scent to retrace their steps. The second behavior is scouting, which involved the dogs taking a new route back to their starting point. Benediktova showed the data and the map information to Burda, who is her Ph.D. adviser. Burda noticed that when dogs were scouting, they would run on a north-south axis before navigating their way back to the starting point. This behavior indicated to Burda that the dogs were running along the magnetic field as a form of navigation. However, there was insufficient data to draw conclusive results.

Expanding the Study

Therefore, Burda and Benediktova decided to scale up their study so that they had more data, thus allowing them to draw better conclusions from the results. This time, they went on several hundred trips to various locations and let 27 dogs run loose while wearing the GPS trackers and video cameras. When the scientists collated their data, they had 223 examples of scouting runs. The dogs in the scouting instances ran an average of 1.1 kilometers before beginning their return to the starting point. Benediktova and Burda found that in 170 of the scouting cases, the dogs stopped to run along the north-south axis for approximately 20 meters before navigating their way to the starting point without backtracking along their previous route. The dogs that ran along the north-south axis before returning to their owner made it back quicker than those that did not.

To make sure that other factors were not helping the dogs to navigate, they were taken to unfamiliar forests, and the team tried not to give them any navigational clues. The dog owners also hid to avoid the dogs merely returning to their owner by sight. Another point to note is that scent seemed not to play a role in the dogs’ navigation as the wind was not blowing from the owner towards the dogs during the study. The study results led Burda to believe that the purpose of the dogs running along the north-south axis was to work out how they were facing to help them relocate their starting point. According to Burda, this is the most plausible explanation for the dogs’ behavior. Catherine Lohmann believes that the implication of the study is that dogs know the heading of their starting point, and they can then use this as a reference to the magnetic compass. They can then work out the most direct route to get back to where they started or to make their way home.

Potential Problems and Further Studies

While Lohmann is intrigued by the study, there are other scientists who have highlighted potential problems. One such scientist is Adam Miklosi, a canine behavior specialist at Eotvos Lorand University. He notes that it is difficult to design experiments that focus on magnetoreception, as there are complications in making an animal rely on that sense without using any other of their senses. Miklosi says that you can only prove the magnetic sense if you completely exclude the other senses. Benediktova and Burda are now designing a new study to support their earlier findings. To disrupt the local field, they will put magnets on the dogs’ collars. They hope to learn whether the use of magnets hinders the dogs’ abilities to navigate. It is possible that their findings will give an invaluable insight into the behavior of dogs.

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