How a Kitty Walked 200 Miles Home: The Science of Your Cat’s Inner Compass

A house cat's long-distance journey raises new questions about how animals navigate

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When a battered, skinny tortoiseshell cat wandered into a yard in Florida earlier this year, she could have been any other stray, but she was nothing of the kind. She carried an implanted microchip—one put there by a loving owner—and it revealed an intriguing story: the cat belonged to a local family, had been lost on a trip two months earlier, and  had traveled 200 miles (322 km) in that time to arrive back in her hometown. Her journey inspired a spate of articles looking for an explanation for how this one cat, and a few others who’ve made similar trips, managed such impressive feats of navigation. The response from many eminent animal researchers was the same: “No idea.”

Cats’ long-distance travels are relatively rare in the scientific literature, which explains the dearth of answers—at least so far. But that’s not the case for the wanderings of sundry other creatures, especially those that migrate. Such extreme journeys—mapless, compassless, sometimes intercontinental, through places the animals have never seen before—seem nothing short of miraculous. That’s the kind of mystery that gets scientists moving, and move they have, conducting all manner of experiments over the years—locking animals in planetariums, carrying them around in dark boxes, putting them in wading pools wrapped in magnets, and destroying various bits of anatomy to see which piece was the important one. These experiments have yielded fascinating insights into the animal brain and into a world beyond human sensation.

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Part of what navigating animals do is not entirely surprising. Planetarium studies reveal that some animals steer by the stars, an approach that’s comfortingly familiar to Homo sapiens but practiced by organisms as distant as the nocturnal dung beetle, which, as one recent study revealed, can roll its precious gob of poo in a straight line only as long as the Milky Way is in view. One of the most accomplished animal navigation researchers of the twentieth century, naturalist Ronald Lockley, found that captured seabirds released far from their homes could make a beeline back so long as either the sun or the stars were visible; an overcast sky threw them off so much that many never made it back.

But plenty of other navigating animals are using something most humans regularly forget exists: the Earth’s magnetic field. In illustrations, the field is usually depicted as a series of loops that emerge from the south pole and reenter the planet at the north pole, and extend out to the edges of our atmosphere, sort of like a cosmic whisk. Our compass needles are designed to align with the field, and in the last few decades it’s become clear that numerous animals can find their way by feeling some of its various field.

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Sea turtles, for example, don’t use the field simply to tell north from south. According to experiments led by Kenneth Lohmann, a professor of biology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, they are actually born knowing a magnetic map of the ocean. Newly hatched loggerhead turtles in the populations Lohmann studies journey 8,000 miles (12,900 km) from their hatching beaches around the Atlantic Ocean to reach feeding areas, and if they don’t keep right on track, they do not survive. Lohmann learned early on that the turtles could sense the Earth’s magnetism: he found that hatchlings from the Florida coast, which normally swim east in darkness to start their migration, swam the other way when they were put in a magnetic field that reversed north and south. That got Lohmann thinking that the turtles’ long-distance navigation might be linked to their being able to respond to whorls and quirks in the planetary field they encounter along the way.

To study this, he and colleagues collected baby sea turtles a few hours before they would have left the nest on their own and put them in pools surrounded by magnetic coils. The coils were designed to reproduce the Earth’s magnetic field at specific points along the turtles’ migration. Reliably, the young turtles oriented themselves and swam in the direction relative to the magnetic field that, had they been in the open ocean, would have kept them on course. Lohmann has tested this with 8 different locations along their route, and in each case the turtles head in just the direction required to get them to their destination. The turtles may not know where they are in any big-picture way—as Lohmann says, they may not see themselves as blinking spots on a map—but they have inherited a sense that should they feel a particular pull from the magnetic field, well, better take a right.

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The list of animals that navigate by magnetism, suspected and confirmed, is long, and includes a few mammals in addition to migrating birds and turtles. But our understanding of the mechanism behind that ability is sketchy: sea turtles tend to be threatened or endangered species, so scientists can study only their behavior, not their brains, and even in animals in which such work is possible, it’s hard to tell what parts of the brain and other physical structures are involved.

Pigeons, one of the most intensively studied animal navigators, show how complex a question this is. One leading theory holds that iron-containing cells in the beak send magnetic information to the brain, since destroying the nerve that carries sensation from beak to brain seems to disrupt pigeons’ navigation. However, last year it emerged that those beak cells are not neurons capable of sending messages, as had been supposed; they appear to be immune cells, throwing the beak theory into confusion. Another school of thought suggests that the magnetic field may be affecting chemical reactions in the birds’ eyes, literally changing the way the world looks when they are oriented in a particular direction. And David Dickmann, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine whose primary work is on a magical ability we humans often forget we have—our ability to sense gravity and constantly adjust our position to keep our balance—has lately published work showing that pigeons may have a magnetic-field sensor in their inner ears. No one knows yet which of these mechanisms, or what combination of them, is at the root of the pigeon’s powers.

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And lest we forget, the magnetic field is far from the only thing out there that navigating animals can sense and humans cannot. The heads of sharks are threaded with jelly-filled tubes, called the ampullae of Lorenzini, that allow them to detect extremely faint electric currents and may help them with navigation. Scents in the air, at concentrations far below human perception, are perceivable to numerous creatures that may use them to steer (in fact, pigeons that cannot smell seem oddly lost, even with their magnetic abilities intact). Bees can see patterns in sunlight invisible to the naked human eye and can use them to find their way.

We can see only the outcomes, never the workings, of whatever evolved systems animals use to orient themselves across hundreds or thousands of miles. But that hasn’t stopped us from working to understand the feats of migrating reptiles, homing pigeons, and even lost pets. With reminders like the odyssey of the Florida housecat, how can we stop?

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89 comments
pendragon05
pendragon05

The problem with some humans is that they have been completely detached from their directional instinct through "socialization." A house cat isn't going to look at the position of the sun and think, "Hm, it's right above my head, it must be lunchtime." No, people can usually tell what time of day it is by the position of the sun. The smarter ones can tell what time of day it is by the moon's phase, provided the moon is visible during the daytime (except when it is in new moon stage). Being a seasoned hiker for over 20 years now, I've never had to use the compass once to find where I am going, or returning to.

syzygysb
syzygysb

" . . .destroying various bits of anatomy to see which piece was the important one."   Some humans are so disgusting.  What should be done are studies to determine how it is that some humans can be so callous and cruel and call their sadism  "science."  Then these aberrations of nature should have their brains surgically corrected.

dol5
dol5

Makes one wonder if all this has something to do with some humans being better with navigation than others. I have only lost my navigation skills, twice. Once while in a car acting as navigator on the east coast. The other in a small boat in Canadian waters in Desolation Sound being run by my husband. Again I was the navigator. I have never had such a confused sense as I experienced both of these time. Until that first time, I could not understand why some people had trouble reading a map or chart. They also seemed to have trouble understanding left from right. Then I found out.

RIRE
RIRE

Very Cool!

ijbtheterrible
ijbtheterrible

Simple as we have some people more intelligent than others so are animals. Some where in the cognitive part of their brain they recognize stars as all people did hundreds of years ago. It just shows that man is not so special. Well, maybe in his own mind.

CatHaee
CatHaee

Mapless and compassless... we just keep walking. Pretty much what a lot of you humans do too, isn't it?


CardinalFang
CardinalFang

In 1955, my mom and her family took their cat, Mittens, on vacation with them to Yosemite. They were up in the high country, Tuolumne Meadows. When it was time to leave, Mittens was nowhere to be found. My grandfather, rest his soul, hated that cat and did not want to wait until she was found. They drove away, their kids crying their eyes out...I can't remember exactly how long it took, but Mittens arrived at their back porch in Santa Cruz, CA, within a few months. Mittens scared the wits out of my grandmother as she scratched the back screen door as she always had when she wanted to be let in. According to my mom, she'd lost weight and her fur was matted, but even my grandfather had to admit it was the same cat. Alas, Mittens became pregnant soon after and the "miracle cat" was taken to the local shelter with her litter. Grandpapa didn't believe in spaying and neutering, apparently.

str8whtguy
str8whtguy

I freakin' love science!  This is cool stuff!

Krenek
Krenek

About two months ago, because of the microchip, a cat that disappeared 8 years ago moved back in with us. He's now a complete couch potato.

Teuta Abazi
Teuta Abazi

The animal that remembers home is not lazy to walk far distances.

CleverBison
CleverBison

Articles like these are published to get us ready for human implants so it doesn't seem like such a crazy idea. The main stream media will tout the benefits of micro chipping our pets and children then eventually everyone.

Ical Faisal
Ical Faisal

Easy. God give them the sensors to navigate Earth's magnetic system. And God made that magnetic system too. I don't preach morality here, btw.

BillWilson
BillWilson

In other words, these "researchers" have tortured and mutilated countless animals, and have nothing to show for it other than a legacy of misery and pain.

javafreakin
javafreakin

The author missed recent articles concerning pigeon navigation which propose that pigeons are using low-frequency sound emanating from the environment as a map.

TheCanarySings
TheCanarySings

Magnetic navigation seems to be the explanation when people don't understand animal behavior. Obviously it exists but animals are far more complex and intelligent than people give them credit for. Animals take in their environment using all their senses and use that as part of their memory. Birds also follow roads, coastlines and mountains. They travel thousands of miles and remember where their favorite trees are and when they are in season along with water sources. They also communicate with each other.  There is probably a whole world going on with birds alone we don't notice and don't have the capacity to understand.

T'm
T'm

Magnetic navigation might me be something we don't understand... but we do have it. Some people are born with the ability to detect magnetic north without any visual aids. I happen to be good friends with one. However, if you use a device that gives your body feedback regarding magnetic north, most people can learn the skill in a couple of hours.

hfeld
hfeld

My cat was an outdoor/indoor cat. I moved 15 miles away to a house on a farm. Lots of busy roads and highways between my old and new home. She diappeared after a week or so at the new place. A few months later friends told me that they had seen her at my old place. I was incredulous. I went looking for her but she was no where to be found. A few months later she showed back up at the farm. A total of almost 6 months had past. She was none the worse for wear. Someone told me I should have kept her inside for a month or so to get her used to the idea that this was her new home, then she would not have taken off. Cats have an amazing internal navigational system.

MikeLucejko
MikeLucejko

When I was a child we lived in Serengoon Estate Singapore..  We had a cat called Tibbles.. My Dad was in the RAF and after a year or so we were given a house on the Camp at RAF Seletar.. We were told that pets were not allowed on the camp, so we had no option but to have Tibbles put to sleep (because she was very wild and wouldn't live with other people).. Well in those days there was no SPCA so the police came and took Tibbles away....  About three months later my Mum and I were sitting on the stoop at our new house and Tibbles came walking up the garden path !! The amazing thing is that it was 'definitely Tibbles' and she had found us even though we had moved to a completely different house 17km from our old house !!

Eric Lin
Eric Lin

Meanwhile, I have a hard time trying to navigate out of a parking lot...

Angelina Cruz
Angelina Cruz

wow thomas maybe you should keep that story to yourself, mkay?

Darius Augustus
Darius Augustus

And still they can't look both ways before crossing the street.