The science behind your dog being able to find you 12 years after being lost

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One day in 2010, Michelle, a woman from Lafayette, California, discovered to her dismay that her dog Zoey It had disappeared on the way back from shopping. After tireless efforts to find her, weeks passed and she finally gave up. Surely Zoey would have died, Michelle thought. However, after remaining missing for twelve years, she Zoey met again with his owner in California, just a few weeks ago. Moment that was broadcast on an emotional video on Facebook.

The dog had apparently been located about sixty miles from where she had disappeared in 2010, her family’s home in Lafayette.

It is not the only story of this type that we can find in the media. A few months earlier, the story of Pero, a four-year-old sheepdog who had managed to find the way back from Cumbria, a region in the north of England, to his former home on the Welsh coast. But he had walked like this almost 400km in two weeks. His microchip served as proof that it was the same canid and that the trip had taken place.

biological GPS

There are more than five hundred identified dog breeds in the world, making this the most diverse mammal on our planet. We tend to think that dogs are innocent and easy to deceive, unlike cats, which seem more clever and Machiavellian. However, according to a recent study and considering their number of neurons, dogs seem to be more intelligent than cats. By this count, in fact, dogs have about 530 million cortical neurons, and cats have about 250 million (humans 16 billion).

In addition to their intelligence, dogs are also characterized by their extraordinary capacity for spatial orientation, as if they had integrated into the brain a sort of biological GPS. According to Catherine Lohmann, a biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, it seems that this is possible thanks to its sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field.

It is something we have suspected since 2013 when A study conducted by Hynek Burda, from the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, and published in the journal Frontiers in Zoologypresented an at least unique finding: While excreting their urine and droppings, dogs tend to be oriented north-south because alignment appears to help dogs determine location relative to other points.

To reach this conclusion, the direction of the body axis was measured in 70 dogs of 37 breeds during the defecation (1893 observations) and the urination (5582 observations) over a two-year period. After a complete sampling, classifying the data according to the geomagnetic conditions that prevailed during the respective sampling periods.

puppy looking

(Aleksandrina Andreeva/Unsplash)

For now, the reason for this alignment remains a mystery. It is not even known if they do it actively or if it is a vegetative function (such as respiration or digestion). But stationary alignment is not the same as navigation. To find out how dogs navigate, a number of other studies have been conducted, including one in which 27 dogs were released on several hundred trips over 3 years all equipped with GPS collars and action cameras. The dogs roamed freely in wooded areas.

Upon returning to the owner (heading home), the dogs either followed their departure trail (“sniff”) or used a novel route (“scan”). The path of entry during exploration began primarily with a short run (about 20 meters) along the north-south geomagnetic axis, regardless of the actual direction home. That is, the dogs located north first and then moved a little towards it. perform such”compass race“significantly increased search efficiency.

According to the authors of the study, this race would be essential for the dog’s mental map to register with the magnetic compass and to establish the animal’s course.

However, this kind of experiments are difficult because it is difficult to encourage the animal to trust only one sense, isolating the rest, in order to prove one hundred percent the efficiency of the magnetic sense. Future experiments should include some system that disturbs the magnetic system in a group of dogs to see how inefficient their performance becomes.

Other recent study, published in Scientific Reports, suggests that the eyes are involved in this magnetic orientation. Apparently, a light-sensitive molecule has been detected in some mammals, the cryptochromes, a class of photoreceptors of blue light from plants and animals and that they would have a relevant role in the regulation of circadian rhythms. The researchers looked for the equivalent of this molecule in 90 different species, finding it in many carnivores, such as dogs, foxes, wolves and bears, but not in felines such as cats, tigers and lions.

Other animals with built-in GPS

Many creatures are capable of amazingly orienting themselves around the world, from carrier pigeons to those that perform seasonal migrations to reproduce, even the humpback whale. In addition to the “magnetic compass”, it seems that birds also make use of solar and stellar “compasses” to get oriented.

Desert ants, meanwhile, use olfactory clues Y scent clouds that have been dispersed by the wind. In this way they can go to food sources and return to their nests.
We humans also have a special ability to orient ourselvesas Caspar Henderson explains in his book the map of wonders:

In humans, the pineal gland produces melatonin, which modulates circadian rhythms; in fact, it is an atrophied photoreceptor. In our distant evolutionary ancestors, this gland was linked to a light-sensing organ called the parietal eye. The leatherback sea turtle, with whom we shared an ancestor hundreds of millions of years ago, has a “skylight” in its skull: an extremely thin bone surface that allows light to strike directly into its pineal gland. This makes it possible for the turtle’s brain to be aware of the diurnal extent, which helps it to orient itself.

Whale 1696051 1280

Even microscopic creatures like bacteria are capable of orienting themselves. To survive, they have ways of moving towards food, for example, and away from those that pose a danger, such as excess heat, acidity or alkalinity. Some have specialized means of propulsion, such as microscopic filaments called flagella. And others, the magnetotactic bacteria, also contain tiny magnetic particles that, when joined at the ends, they act like microscopic compass needlesas David Barrie explains in his book The most incredible trips:

These “needles” force the bacteria to align with the Earth’s magnetic field, which helps them find their way into the oxygen-poor layers of water and sediment in which they live. The waters found in bacteria in the northern hemisphere have an opposite polarity to those in the southern hemisphere. A simple example of the power of natural selection.

Sometimes, yes, the press exaggerates individual stories.Like dogs that seem to have traveled great distances. That is the exception, not the norm. Most dogs get lost and can’t find their way home, let alone cover long distances. We are still trying to pin down the exact science behind whether or to what extent they do.

This will not only allow us to understand a little better how they are oriented, but also to delve into what other elements influence their mass movements or displacements. Carrying out experiments like this fabulous network of 100,000 animals linked by trackers and observed from space that could explain animal behavior and help forecast volcanic eruptions, extreme weather and emerging diseases.

Image: Trac Vu/Unsplash

One day in 2010, Michelle, a woman from Lafayette, California, discovered to her dismay that her dog Zoey It had…

One day in 2010, Michelle, a woman from Lafayette, California, discovered to her dismay that her dog Zoey It had…

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