Rover, Come Home!

Dogs may sense Earth’s magnetic field and use it like a compass

A hunting dog pointing a pheasant.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

Hunting dogs use more than their noses to find their way back to their owners hundreds or even thousands of feet away, researchers have found. Turns out, these four-legged navigators may sense Earth’s magnetic field and use it as a compass, scientists are now reporting.

This ability, called magnetoreception, is common in many animals, including some whale species, dolphins and sea turtles, among others. Now, a new study carried out in the Czech Republic and detailed in the journal eLife, suggests adding at least some hunting dogs to this list.

“This ‘sense’ is beyond our own human perception and it is, therefore, very hard to understand its meaning for animals,” study researcher Kateřina Benediktová, at Czech University of Life Sciences Prague, told Live Science. Benediktová is a graduate student in the lab of Hynek Burda, another study author. 

This work builds on previous research by Benediktová and Burda, along with a team of scientists, who found that several breeds of dog preferred to poop with their body aligned along the magnetic north-south axis. The researchers speculated that behavior could help the dogs map their location relative to other spots, such as their starting point, they said in their study published in 2013 in the journal Frontiers in Zoology, as reported by Science magazine.

In the new study, Benediktová and her colleagues looked specifically at hunting dogs because this group of dogs has astonishing homing abilities that are not fully understood. They have been bred over generations to seek out game and if they don’t find any, they navigate back to their owners over long distances, often using novel routes back. How these dogs pinpoint their owner’s location in densely forested areas is perplexing.

Between September 2014 and December 2017, Benediktová’s team equipped 27 hunting dogs of 10 different breeds, including fox terriers and miniature dachshunds, with GPS trackers. These dogs were allowed to roam in forested areas away from buildings, roads and powerlines. Dogs ran individually and returned on their own. Trips took between 30 and 90 minutes. Owners hid close to the location where the dog was released. The GPS data, from a total of 622 excursions in 62 different locations in the Czech Republic, were then compiled and analyzed.

Here, two study participants, a fox terrier (left) and a miniature dachshund (right), are equipped with a GPS transmitter, an antenna and a camera.

Here, two study participants, a fox terrier (left) and a miniature dachshund (right), are equipped with a GPS transmitter, an antenna and a camera. (Image credit: eLife 2020;9:e55080, CC BY 4.0)

What researchers found was that the dogs mostly followed their own scent to take the same route back as they did on the outbound trek — a method called “tracking.” In 223 of the excursions, however, the dogs took a novel route back using a method referred to as “scouting.” The researchers looked more closely at the GPS data from these “scouting” treks to investigate how those dogs found their way back. A majority of the scouting dogs began their return with a short run along Earth‘s north-south axis. The researchers noticed that this “compass run” occurred regardless of the dog’s actual return direction. 

“We propose that this [compass] run is instrumental for bringing the mental map into register with the magnetic compass and to establish the heading of the animal,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

Those scouting dogs also returned faster to their owners than the dogs using the tracking method, in which they just came back the same way they went out.

“We were absolutely excited “when we found an unexpected magnetic behavior in the dogs’ scouting return strategy,” Benediktová said. “Hunting dogs roam over large distances. A human would most probably get lost without a compass and a map if roaming over comparable distances in unfamiliar forested areas. In addition, after the north-south compass run, dogs were able to run more directly to the owner.”

Kathleen Cullen, a neuroscience professor at The John Hopkins University who was not involved in the research, said the findings are exciting, “Overall, I think that the authors’ unexpected discovery that hunting dogs will often perform a ‘compass run’ before returning home is exciting — these results will certainly motivate further exploration of how exactly the mammalian brain encodes magnetic cues and then uses this information to achieve accurate navigation.”

Cullen added, “It is also interesting “that these results build on previous findings showing that other animals, such as migratory birds, also sense the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate back to their homes.”

When asked what motivated this study, Benediktová said that “the connection between navigation, homing and magnetoreception could be very close.” In addition, “its role in the orientation of dogs has not been studied as thoroughly as in migratory birds, turtles or subterranean mole rats.”

The researchers also tried to rule out other explanations besides the compass run for how the dogs found their way back to their owners. GPS data from scouting dogs showed no significant performance difference between dogs of different sexes, and dogs navigated back equally well in both familiar and unfamiliar terrain. They also determined that the position of the sun had little influence on the dog’s navigation ability, because most days were overcast. Dogs probably weren’t using distant landmarks to navigate because researchers saw no significant difference in homing abilities of tall and short dogs even though short dogs would be less able to see through the dense foliage. And the team ruled out the possibility of dogs using scent to navigate home because only 10% of the runs had winds blowing in the direction from owner to dog and scouting runs were nearly 100 feet (30 meters) from outbound runs.

In WWI, dogs delivered messages while under fire and they helped locate wounded soldiers and carried first aid kits to be used in the field. The amazing abilities have long been a source of amazement and curiosity. For every generation, there is a heartwarming movie like “Lassie Come Home,” about a dog who can travel long distances. This current Czech study may provide a clue to dogs’ phenomenal abilities.

“The magnetic field,” the researchers wrote in their paper, “may provide dogs with a ‘universal’ reference frame, which is essential for long-distance navigation, and arguably, the most important component that is ‘missing’ from our current understanding of mammalian special behavior and cognition.”

Cullen cautioned that the study needs to be replicated to make a stronger case for the conclusions, but if it is verified, the findings “suggest that a neural strategy in which magnetoreception contributes to the brain’s ‘internal GPS’ is likely to be more common than previously thought.”

Originally published on Live Science.


Of Gyrocompasses, Electronic Warfare, and Pole Shifts



June 9, 2020 By Joseph P. Farrell

Now here’s one that has my high octane speculation and suspicion meter in the red zone. It was spotted and shared by E.K., and it raises all sorts of questions, for it seems that ships at sea have been sailing in circles, and no one, apparently, knows why. Here’s the story:

A maritime mystery: What has been causing ships to sail in circles?

As the article notes, ships sailing in circles – often unbeknownst to their crews (we’ll get back to that) – has been a growing phenomenon, particularly in Chinese waters, and as the article avers, one immediate suspicion is electronic warfare and the deliberate interference and manipulation of GPS data:

Ships appearing to sail in circles have become an increasingly common and mysterious phenomenon near a number of ports on the coast of China, especially near oil terminals and government facilities – but nothing had been seen where the Willowy was.

Researchers monitoring these bizarre circles near the Chinese coast believe they are probably the result of systematic GPS manipulation designed to undermine a tracking system which all commercial ships are required to use under international law.

The circles spotted near the Chinese coast have been attributed to GPS interference, something which coincided with US sanctions on Iran, according to Phil Diacon, the chief executive of marine intelligence firm Dryad Global.

This immediately made me think of the USS Fitrzgerald and USS John McCain incidents, where two American warships, one in Japanese waters (the Fitzgerald) and the other in the busy waters around Singapore (the McCain), suffered collisions with civilian vessels, in spite of the latest in electronic detection and warfare equipment. I said then, and maintain still (and in spite of friendly efforts from ex-US Navy personnel to dissuade me), that these were not accidents, but perhaps the result of electronic warfare of some sort. I’ve even gone so far as to entertain the possibility that some sort of mind-manipulation technology may have been used not only on the crews of the American warships, but perhaps also on the crews of the civilian vessels with which they collided.

The problem with that explanation here is that the latest episodes occur far from waters in which China would be interested:

But according to a global analysis of this data by environmental groups SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch, a number of circling incidents have also occurred quite a distance away from Chinese ports, with some impossibly appearing miles inland near San Francisco.

SkyTruth found the real locations of these ships often thousands of miles away from the circular sailing tracks. The ships were again were often actually near oil terminals or in locations where GPS disruption had been reported before.

In this case, a Liberian flagged vessel began to show some unusual behavior:

At approximately 1am on Sunday morning, the Liberian-flagged crude oil tanker, operated by Singaporean business Executive Ship, suddenly swung starboard and began actually sailing in circles.

The ship was unable to steer and the crew reported that four other vessels in its vicinity were caught in a similar spiral, slowly converging on each other for an unknown reason.

There are suggestions that GPS jamming has been used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to dupe commercial vessels into entering Iranian waters, and Chinese electronic warfare capabilities have been proposed as a potential cause for some ships appearing thousands of miles away from where they really were.

The crew aboard the Willowy were aware of these issues but none of these risks could be feasible west of Cape Town – a long way from the Strait of Hormuz or the contested South China Sea.

So what’s the explanation here? The article offers the South Atlantic magnetic anomaly and the weakening magnetic field of the Earth as a possible hypothesis:

But the European Space Agency has detected something else there.

Nobody knows why, but the Earth’s magnetic field – which has lost almost 10% of its strength over the last two centuries – is growing particularly weak in a large region stretching from Africa to South America, impacting satellites and spacecraft.

Known as the South Atlantic Anomaly, the field strength in this area has rapidly shrunk over the past 50 years just as the area itself has grown and moved westward. And over the past five years a second centre of minimum intensity has developed southwest of Africa, very near to where the Willowy was sailing.

One speculation regarding this weakening is that it is a sign that the Earth is heading for a pole reversal – in which the north and south magnetic poles flip.

This flip won’t happen immediately but instead would occur over the course of a couple of centuries during which there would be multiple north and south magnetic poles all around the globe.

The impact would be enormous for seafaring vessels whose navigation was based on magnetic compasses – causing them not only to sail in circles, but perhaps not even realise it.

Fortunately, as the crew and the company’s onshore marine superintendents knew, it has been decades since magnetic compasses governed maritime navigation.

Modern ships like the Willowy use something called a gyrocompass instead, which finds true north as determined by gravity and the axis of the Earth’s rotation rather than magnetic north.

Now, this is where it gets very interesting, especially if you’ve been following some discussions in physics for the past few decades where it has been suggested that there is a link – mysterious and unknown – between gravity and magnetism. And it’s also where the article begins to raise more questions than it answers, for we’re informed that the Willowy’s gyrocompass mysteriously malfunctioned, cause unknown:

The crew, alongside the company’s shore-based marine superintendents, investigated and identified that the ship’s primary gyrocompass was indeed malfunctioning.

The ship resumed its course safely when it switched to using the secondary gyrocompass, along with an old-fashioned magnetic compass for good measure, Executive Ship confirmed to Sky News.

Asked what caused the failure, the company described it as “an incidental breakdown” and added “repair will be done at the next port where the cause will be identified by shore technicians”.

But wait a minute, what about those four other ships involved in the incident? Indeed, the article itself asks this question in the very next paragraph:

But what about the other ships in the Willowy’s vicinity, circling and seeming as if they would converge?

A spokesperson for Executive Ship explained to Sky News: “The initial presumptive cause of circling for the Willowy was considered to be strong currents which also led the crew to perceive that other ships were circling too.”

With so many mysteries on the oceans, it must be easy to panic at sea.

And with that rather lack-luster ending and non-explanation, the whole article ends.

As the reader might have guessed, this has my high octane speculations and suspicions running in all sorts of directions, all of them in “the red zone.” For example:

What if the appearance of the South Atlantic anomaly is not entirely natural? What if it is either deliberately engineered, or, is a consequence – an unknown effect – of so many new technologies being introduced around fifty years ago, such as extremely low frequency radio broadcasting using deeply embedded antennae in the Earth, which might interfere with the planetary dynamo and hence with the magnetic field? What if such technologies and there effects were deliberately investigated in the past 50 years, such that utilizing that technology one could literally induce a pole shift, or the creation of several local north or south magnetic poles?

But as the article notes, magnetic compasses and so on should not even be a concern, since ships use gyrocompasses. So the implication is that something might be causing gyrocompasses to malfunction simultaneously and in the same area. If that is the case (and the article does not explicitly say so, I’m merely speculating that it might be), then the question is what is making that happen? Given that the article spends much time indicating that many incidents might be written off to electronic warfare and interference of some sort, I wonder if it is being suggested that interference along the lines of my speculations in the previous paragraph isn’t being suggested. But how and why?

My suspicion is that somehow the gyrocompasses are being interfered with. There might be a variety of methods to do this: introduction of subtle precessional “wobbles” in the compass, which could “move” rotational “north” to a different position. Since gyrocompasses are based on the mass and rotation of the Earth and the compass in relation to them, this would seem to imply an ability to alter local or regional conditions; think of the “masscons” beneath the Moon’s surface, anomalous concentrations of mass, which would increase the local gravitational acceleration on the lunar surface. Similar things might be being engineered – deliberately, or as an unintended consequence of other systems engineering.

In any case, I don’t know about you, but I have the suspicion, the intuition, that regardless of whether or not we’re looking at deliberate intentional (or unintentional) interference, the bottom line is we’re looking at interference of major navigation systems.

And that makes this story one to watch.

See you on the flip side…