Study Shows Dogs Use Earth’s Magnetic Field To Navigate

Lori Ennis
by Lori Ennis
As if we don’t already think our dogs are incredibly brilliant (and adorable), science now suggests that they’re navigation pros too, as they use the earth’s magnetic field to find their way around.

You read that right–Czech scientists have found evidence that suggests our dogs’ uncanny senses of direction, even in new places, can be blamed on their ability to use the weak magnetic field of the Earth.

This very cool superpower is called magnetoreception, and many other animals (birds, salamanders, frogs and sea turtles to name a few) also possess the ability.

The study was published in eLife, and gave insight to the ways dogs are able to use the science. We know that while hunting, some dogs are able to use scent trails to retrace their steps and ‘find’ their way back to a starting point. That’s called tracking.

But others can return to a starting point using a completely different way than they originally trekked out on. This is called scouting.

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Several years ago, scientists in Czechia observed that dogs did tended to do their business on a north-to-south axis, and believed this showed an ability to somehow sense the Earth’s magnetic field. Researchers now believe that their evidence shows dogs do this when they are scouting as well.

To test their theory, the research team used GPS data and video on action cams. They watched 27 hunting dogs (representing 10 different breeds) in homing trials at 62 different forested locations.

From 2014 to 2017, the dogs participated in over 600 trials in which they set out for a chase and then returned to their humans.

They looked at the specific scouting events and the researchers found that dogs who chased an animal’s scent began to go back to their human within an approximate 65-ft run along a north-south axis. They did this despite the actual location their owner was standing in.

The research team termed this a ‘compass run,’ believing it’s the way dogs got their ‘magnetic sensors’ ready before they took off. The forests were unknown to the dogs and there were no owner scents they could track. They also did trials on days that wind wasn’t carrying smells from their human to the dogs, and the foliage of the forests was so thick, the sun and any paths ahead were pretty obscure.

But the earth’s magnetic field never really changes much, and acted as a universal reference frame for the dogs.

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The researchers argued that hunting dogs truly appear to use magnetoreception when they are finding their way back to their humans.

Obviously, this is a great skill for dogs to have for long-distance navigation, but it’s also important to know so we can better understand mammalian spatial behavior and cognition.

In fact, it could be a skill even we humans possess, as the molecule scientists believe to be responsible for this ‘sixth sense’ in birds has also been found in dogs, bears and certain primates.

It’s not unreasonable we could have it too, but in the meantime, if you’re lost and your dog is trying to guide you? You might want to pay attention.

Lori Ennis
Lori Ennis

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