Can Dogs Use the Earth’s Magnetic Field to Navigate?

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Have you ever wondered why some dogs have such a good sense of direction? Is it all thanks to their world-class noses, or do they have an additional sensory talent?

A new study suggests that our dogs might actually be sensing Earth’s magnetic field and using it like a compass.

New Study Suggests Some Dogs Might Have Magnetoreception Like Other Animals

This ability is known as magnetoreception. It’s common in many animals, like sea turtles and dolphins. And although we’ve studied dogs’ navigational abilities much less than, say, migratory animals, the new study points to at least some dog breeds having this ability, too.

It’s still unclear how dogs do it, and to what extent. But it does appear that this hidden sense, magnetoreception, really does exist in canines.

“This ‘sense’ is beyond our own human perception and it is, therefore, very hard to understand its meaning for animals,” said study researcher Kateřina Benediktová, at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague.

Benediktová is a graduate student in the lab of Hynek Burda, another author of the study. Burda is a sensory ecologist at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague. He has been working on magnetic reception for three decades.

The new research builds upon previous research from Burda and Benediktová. In that study, they found that several breeds of dogs preferred to poop with their body aligned along the magnetic north-south axis.

The study involved 70 dogs from 37 different breeds over a two-year period, and observations were made off-leash and in open fields — void of walls, fences, and other objects that might influence the dogs’ positioning.

Essentially, researchers found a measurable change in dogs’ behavior based on the conditions of the magnetic field. But stationary alignment isn’t really the same thing as navigation.

New Study Looked at Hunting Dogs Navigating in the Forest

In the new study, Benediktová and Burda looked at hunting dogs.

The dogs went to a part of a forest they had never been to before. The researchers did this so the dogs couldn’t rely on familiar landmarks. Their owners hid after the dogs were released.

Although the dogs often followed their own scent to retrace the same route they took — a method called “tracking” — in many excursions, dogs took a new route back using a method referred to as “scouting.”

GPS data from the “scouting” treks showed that the dogs began by running along Earth’s north-south axis. And this “compass run” occurred regardless of the dog’s actual return direction.

“The magnetic field may provide dogs with a ‘universal’ reference frame, which is essential for long-distance navigation, and arguably, the most important component that is ‘missing’ from our current understanding of mammalian special behavior and cognition,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

The study would need to be replicated to make a stronger case for conclusions. However, if verified, the findings suggest that magnetoreception contributes to the brain’s “internal GPS,” and that it might be more common than previously thought.