Getting inside your cat’s and other animals’ inner Compass

The cat who walked 2000 miles back to her owner

The cat who walked 2000 miles back to her owner

Here’s one story of current time as an example: when a bony, scathed tortoiseshell cat stepped into a yard in Florida earlier this year, the cat could have been any other stray cat, but she was not. She was carrying an implanted microchip placed by a loving owner and it revealed an intriguing story. This cat belonged to a couple lost months earlier in November 2012 on a trip in Daytona Beach and returned to their hometown in West Palm Beach after traveling 200 miles or 322 kilometers. Her journey left many people in amazement and sparked a spate of articles looking for explanations on how this one cat, and a few others who’ve made similar trips, managed such incredible navigation abilities. The amazing accomplishment isn’t unprecedented though. An Australian cat was reported to have traveled 1,000 miles over the course of a year to get home. Bobbie the Wonder Dog was a minor celebrity in the 1920’s after walking home to Oregon from Indiana. So how do animals find their way home from such great distances?

So far, cats’ long distance journeys are relatively rare in scientific literature, which explains the dearth of answers. But the case is not similar for the wandering of sundry other creatures especially those of which that migrates. Nothing short of miraculous, these events where animal’s journeys are extreme -without compasses or maps to distant places, sometimes even intercontinental travels. These are the kinds of mysteries that gets scientists moving, and moved they have. Scientists have conducted all manner of experiments over the years; carrying animals around in dark boxes, putting them in wading pools wrapped in magnets, locking them in planetariums and destroying various bits of anatomy to see which piece was the important one. The experiments have yielded fascinating insights into the animal brain into a realm beyond human sensation.

According to Wikipedia, Animal navigation is “the ability of many animals to find their way accurately without maps or instruments. Birds such as the Arctic tern, insects such as the monarch butterfly and fish such as the salmon regularly migrate thousands of miles to and from their breeding grounds, and many other species navigate effectively over shorter distances.

Part of what navigating animals do is not completely new or surprising to scientist. Planetarium studies state that some animals steer by the stars, an approach that’s familiar to Homo sapiens but also done by insects as distant as the nocturnal dung beetle, which, as one study recently revealed, rolls its precious gob of poo in a straight line only as long as the Milky Way galaxy is in view. Naturalist Ronald Lockley, one of the most accomplished animal navigation researchers of the 20th century, found that seabirds in captivity released far from their habitats have the ability to make a beeline back so long as either the sun or stars were in sight; an overcast sky threw them off so much that many never made it back to their original home.

Visualizing location is another orientation strategy of animal navigation. One version of it that humans use is land marking. When someone asks for directions, people usually say “straight ahead and turn right when you see the blue tower” or “turn right before you see the Laundromat.” It turns out that animals also rely on landmarks. According to scientific tests, if a laboratory rat is spun to the point of disorientation, it will use visual cues, such as a human-made exit sign or a light bulb, as a pole star to find its way home. Mammals, bees and wasps are known to be using this type of navigation as well.

Other mechanism, or orientation strategy of animal navigation aside from visualizing and path integration, also widely known as dead reckoning for humans, are orientation by the sun or night sky. Sand-hoppers and Manx shearwater birds use orientation by the sun along with their body clocks. Notably, honey bees use orientation by the night skies. Olfaction is used particularly by salmon where they keep a mental map of the odor of their area.

So, back to the cat. So how does a feline get from Daytona to West Palm Beach? The key was probably the ocean. West Palm Beach is 200 miles straight down the coast from Daytona. Once the cat found the ocean, it had to make only one choice: Left or right? Leave it to animal’s inner compasses.

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