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How Do Animals Find Their Way Home (Without GPS)?

Ever wonder how some lost pets find their way home, or how butterflies know where they're going when they migrate? We have the answers!

Have you ever thought about how animals—some domesticated and others wild—find their way home or places to migrate to each year? Believe it or not, certain animals have a built-in, location-finding capability that relies on everything from sight and smell to more intricate magnetic methods of geolocation. Some animals even have innate, map-based orientation systems. Check out this impressive list!

Pigeons – Compasses With Wings

four carrier pigeons
Pigeons have a “map and compass” type of navigation system.

Historically, pigeons played an important role in relaying messages. Since they have an innate homing ability, pigeons were routinely used for such things as announcing the winner of the Ancient Olympics and sending covert messages during numerous wars.

Charles Darwin determined that all pigeons ultimately descend from one species—the wild rock dove. Historians claim that humans began breeding pigeons that excelled in specific traits early on, ultimately creating different varieties, such as homing pigeons and carrier pigeons.

How They Do It:

Scientists surmise the pigeon’s ability to home in on various locations with such precision is a result of a “map and compass” type of navigation system. In other words, they orient themselves relative to a goal site, using a combination of the Sun and other celestial light patterns, sight and smell, various gravity anomalies, and the Earth’s magnetic field. Scientists believe special neurons within their inner ear may help them process such things as minute changes in direction and the strength and polarity of the magnetic fields around them.

Fun Fact: The carrier pigeon was bred for its beauty and the homing pigeon for its speed and ability to return home.

Monarch Butterflies – “Recalculating”

Swarm of monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies monitor the position of the Sun.

For humans, heading south for the winter is as easy as hopping on a plane, but for millions of monarch butterflies that make the yearly 3,000-mile trek from Canada to Mexico, they must rely on an internal, genetically encoded GPS system.

How They Do It

According to a new University of Washington study, butterflies use an internal “compass” that integrates two specific pieces of information—the time of day and the Sun’s position on the horizon. To configure this information, they monitor the Sun’s position using their extremely complex, compound eyes, and an internal, clock-like system within their antennae. They send this information through specific neurons to their brain and determine which direction is southwest. If they are blown off course, they simply recalculate much like our car’s GPS system.

Salmon – Smells Like Home

salmon fish swimming upriver
Salmon may rely on smells and environmental cues.

Every year, thousands of juvenile salmon, with no prior migratory experience, make their way downstream to specific oceanic feeding grounds hundreds of miles from the riverbed where they were born. Several years later, with pinpoint accuracy, they return to that same river to breed.

How They Do It

While the actual process is much more in-depth, scientists have determined that young salmon use a navigation system similar to pigeons (although it’s more developed, since fish must continuously account for drifting and have no stationary visual land cues).

Ultimately, they use a combination of environmental cues, including length of the day, the Sun’s position and angle in the sky, water salinity and temperature gradients, and the Earth’s magnetic field. They may also rely on smells, which they start remembering when they first make their way downstream. While some humans can follow their noses to the nearest bakery, it’s unlikely they can make their way hundreds of miles away by smell alone!

What About Pets?

What about domesticated animals? Can they fend for themselves if lost, or has domestication made them less adept than their wild counterparts? How do they measure up to humans?

Cats – Head-To-Toe Compass

White cat rubbing against a building
Cats mark their territory so they know where home is!

Interestingly, according to the Genome Institute, cats, unlike dogs, are really only “semi-domesticated.” In fact, scientists go as far as to say there is little difference between the average house cat and wild cats.

How They Do It

In general, cats have very powerful senses. In fact, they have more than 19-million scent receptors. They tend to bond strongly to a home location, even marking their territory by spraying urine or rubbing their many scent glands onto various items in their home area, which also makes it easier to find their way back.

Cats also have incredible eyesight and hearing, and they use their fur, whiskers, and paws to gather information to help them navigate. Scientists have determined that cats can detect the Earth’s magnetic fields through iron in their ears and skin, which acts as a natural compass.

Dogs – There’s No Smell Like Home

Close up of chocolate lab dog nose
Dogs’ noses contain hundreds of millions of sensory neurons that make them superior navigators to humans.

Anyone with a dog knows it’s all about smells. Dogs are constantly sniffing everything they come in contact with, so it should come as no surprise that they also use their incredible sniffers to navigate.

How They Do It

Dogs’ noses contain hundreds of millions of sensory neurons—up to 300 million, compared to the six million in the human nose, making their sense of smell 10,000-to-100,000 times keener than ours. They also have a second olfactory capability humans don’t have—the Jacobson’s organ, found at the bottom of their nasal passage, which allows them to smell pheromones.

New studies also show dogs rely on their sense of smell to pick up familiar scents over a 10-mile distance. Dogs also see much better at night than humans (because they have larger pupils, which let in more light, and their retinas have more light-sensitive cells), which makes them supremely better navigators. Some researchers suggest if your dog gets lost, you can leave a familiar piece of your clothing or their bed outside to help them find their way home.

Any way you look at it, animals have us beat when it comes to navigating. While some of us may be better than others at finding our way, it’s a good thing we can rely on GPS!

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Cynthia McMurray

Cynthia McMurray is a freelance writer and journalist, and publisher of a national health magazine. She has written books for leading health professionals and is the owner of Write Words, a consulting business for writers. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her article, Animals' Amazing Sense of Direction  appears in the 2021 Farmers' Almanac.

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