Dogs are renowned for their world-class noses, but a new study suggests they may have an additional — albeit hidden — sensory talent: a magnetic compass.
The sense appears to allow them to use Earth’s magnetic field to calculate shortcuts in unfamiliar terrain. The finding is a first in dogs, says Catherine Lohmann, a biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who studies “magnetoreception” and navigation in turtles…
There were already hints that dogs — like many animals, and maybe even humans — can perceive Earth’s magnetic field. In 2013, Hynek Burda, a sensory ecologist at the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague who has worked on magnetic reception for 3 decades, and colleagues showed dogs tend to orient themselves north-south while urinating or defecating.
Because this behavior is involved in marking and recognizing territory, Burda reasoned the alignment helps dogs figure out the location relative to other spots.
Lohmann and a graduate student tracked the path of dogs on 233 separate trips spread out over three years:
In 170 of these trips, the dogs stopped before they turned back and ran for about 20 meters along a north-south axis. When the animals did this, they tended to get back to the owner via a more direct route than when they didn’t, the authors report in eLife…
Burda thinks the dogs run along a north-south axis to figure out which way they are.
“It’s the most plausible explanation,” he says. Lohmann says the implication is that dogs can remember their previous heading and use the reference to the magnetic compass to figure out the most direct route home.
Originally published at Pop times