The Long Road Home

In our previous piece, we examined how wild animals navigate the globe. I’d hoped to understand how stories like “The Incredible Journey” can occur, where lost pets trekked very long distances to find their owner or their geographic home. Stories of this phenomenon abound, but verification is a little more hard to come by. Many of these narratives rely upon the habits or demeanor of the returning animal to substantiate his or her identity (was it really the same black cat?). A few, however, had microchips, ID tags, or distinguishing marks that really couldn’t be duplicated. In other words, the real deal.

Internet tales aside, please understand that it’s actually extremely rare for a dog or cat to make an incredible journey. Sadly, a massive number of lost pets are never reunited with their owners. Those who are successfully returned across long distances, or after lengthy periods of time, are nearly always brought back by the direct intervention of a human being, which couldn’t have occurred without a collar or microchip. In other words, not the real deal. (There’s a lesson there, though...microchip your pet. Lesson two: DO NOT take him on vacation.)

Birds, though. Scientists have boxed up every kind of bird you can imagine and transported it to a new location hundreds, or thousands, of miles away. The birds always seem to find their way. Turtles find their nesting beach. Salmon find their spawning area. Finding your destination might begin with a compass, but a compass is not a homing beacon. It only helps you travel in a straight line.

Research shows that dogs like to urinate and defecate on a line that is laid out north-south. (Of course I am not kidding!) They also use a brief north-south run to get their bearings before emerging from an unfamiliar woods. So dogs, at least, do have the fundamental ability to detect magnetic North. Pigeons construct a map of their environment with a pattern of memorized odors. A dog would certainly be capable of that, with their superb sense of smell. Other birds anchor their position on the globe by studying the night sky. Using a planetarium, we can actually convince them that the world revolves around a different axis than it does. Dogs and cats might be able to do the same, if they’d spent enough time outdoors at night. Various animals analyze the pattern of ocean waves, count their steps, catalog wind direction and visual landmarks, and distinguish the unique magnetic signatures of different beaches. Bees communicate detailed maps to each other by dancing! Finding a particular location seems to depend upon artfully blending multiple different methods. Perhaps your pet has more of these skills than you know.

Nature (including the sizable chunk inside your dog or cat) is nothing short of astounding. Humans may never understand exactly how innate navigation works, but that won’t stop us from trying. We’ll continue driving birds around in boxes, sewing tiny turtle backpacks, and hatching beetles inside the planetarium until we get it. If not... the remaining mystery is always good for a healthy sense of awe.

Dr. M.S. Regan