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A Wilder View: Secrets of Supernavigators

A Wilder View
Posted at 11:12 AM, May 24, 2023

MISSOULA - Whether it’s land, air or sea, wildlife's remarkable navigational feats hold invaluable lessons on our own path forward.

Pretty much every animal that has the power of movement has to be able to navigate.

Whether it’s an arctic tern migrating thousands of miles or a humpback whale navigating entire oceans -- animals find their way.

David Barrie is an award-winning author of Sextant, a book on the most important navigational instruments ever created, and to the daring mariners who used it to explore the world.

In recent years he released the book Supernavigators exploring the brilliant ways animals navigate.

The discovery of longitude led to the beginning really of scientific exploration,” Barrie said.

In the wildlife realm navigation is vital for all. It doesn't matter if you’re as big as an elephant or as small as an ant.

“The desert ant of North Africa is an astonishing navigator. The nest entrance is a little hole in the ground just big enough to let the ant in is tiny,” Barrie said.

They leave the nest and go on foraging trips traveling hundreds of meters. After traveling that far it would be impossible just to see the tiny hole they came out of so how do they do it?

“They’ve got an amazing array of cells in their eyes that enable them to track the position of the sun,” explained Barrie.

They also have a way to determine how far they’ve gone, much like an odometer.

“Believe it or not they count their steps. And this is an animal with a brain that consists of about 400,000 neurons whereas we have 85 million,” Barrie said.

And other seemingly small non-significant animals have also found brilliant ways to travel — like the dung beetle.

“The dung beetle not only uses the moon but the Milky Way too,” Barrie said.

Looking up at the stars to find the way is more common than you might think. Birds for instance are notorious for using the stars.

“They look at the night sky and they learn to recognize how the stars appear to rotate around the northern celestial pole,” Barrie noted.

The birds learn that there is a still point in the sky — nowadays that still point is called Polaris or the North Star.

These super navigation skills can be passed on through learning or even through genetics, according to Barrie.

“Probably with animals like insects, it’s more hard-wired. Though they can learn and can adapt.”

That essentially means they start out with a hard-wired toolkit they can fine-tune throughout life while more complex or bigger animals are more likely to learn it.

“There’s the very real possibility that it’s actually learning the route by following the more experienced,” said Barrie.

But it’s also clear some birds have a hard-wired navigation system. Take the cuckoo for instance; by the time it's ready to fly its parents are long gone.

“The Cuckoo here in Britain will fly off to Africa and it’s thousands and thousands of miles. Maybe Cuckoos and other birds that do similar things actually inherit a whole map that tells them where to go,” Barrie said. “But how would that work? Is it a magnetic map? An olfactory map? Is it both? Are they using the sun and the stars? Who knows?”

Whether we know their navigation abilities or not, it’s clear people are interfering with these abilities.

“There is strong evidence that radio transmissions can interfere with the magnetic compass sense of migratory birds,” Barrie explained.

Barrie added that another serious problem is light pollution, “Lots of animals that travel by night are thrown off course and die in the billions because of our grossly overlit towns and cities.”

Barrie suggests there are ways to unlock these hidden features that animals are using.

“At the essence of this is engagement with the natural world. It’s opening your eyes. Opening your ears. Smelling the Air. Using your brain.”

But even today, Barries says there are people that can find their way.

“If you want to lead a rich and fulfilling life. You just need to open your eyes and observe in the way that Indigenous people have always done, in the way that our ancestors always did, and like all the living creatures around us.”