Dogs have long been thought to possess some form of "sixth sense" by people who are inclined to believe in the supernatural, or that they can see things that humans cannot (as opposed to being able to hear things humans can't). Whilst this is a little too far-fetched for science enthusiasts, it might be possible that dogs can sense something just as impressive – Earth’s magnetic field.
Using an inbuilt perception of the magnetic field as a navigation tool isn’t a new concept, with migratory birds using it to travel large distances and bees using "magnetic abdomens" to navigate. However, evidence of dogs using it has always been purely anecdotal.
In a study published in eLife, grad student Kateřina Benediktová and her supervisor Hynek Burda sent 27 hunting dogs on a free-roaming adventure through woodlands equipped with action-cams to see the routes they chose both away and back to the owners.
Two distinct patterns of activity were identified: 'tracking’ and ‘scouting’. Tracking described the dog traveling out and then retracing its steps back home, whilst scouting dogs found entirely new routes back.
Out of the 223 scouting runs looked at, 170 of them shared one distinct feature – they seemed to align themselves along the north-south axis before finding a route home. Once they reached their maximum distance from the owner, they would stop, turn around and run for about 20 meters directly north or south before beginning their journey back. All the dogs that did this movement found a faster, more direct route back than those that didn’t. Benediktová and Burda believe the crafty dogs were using an inbuilt compass, via perception of the magnetic field, to help them navigate.
Of course, knowing whether the magnetic field or just smell, memory or something else guiding them was the cause for the impressive pathfinding is tricky. The researchers made sure to take them – whenever possible – to areas completely new to them, and tried to eliminate smell by standing downwind of the roaming dog. Still, they navigated back after this strange north-south run every time.
Intrigued by the findings, the researchers are keen to explore this further. They explain in Science Magazine that their next experiments aim to truly implicate magnetic perception in their results by using magnetic collars to intentionally disturb the dogs’ “magnetoreception,” should it exist. Doing so will help them understand the extent to which the dogs rely on it for pathfinding, or whether their findings are the result of an unrelated behavior.