Can cats find their way home?
Felines are excellent navigators, but how can they find their way home from a place they have never been before?
Can cats find their way home?
A cat navigating through its territory makes decisions based on knowledge and experiences. It uses its senses– smell, hearing, sight, taste, and physical sensation. It can recognise places because it has been there before. It knows where its territory ends and where other cats' territory begins due to the pheromone markings they spread through urine and physical contact. All these recognisable components mean they can easily orientate themselves around their territories.
What if a cat gets transported in the trunk of a car to an unknown location, far from home. Without any recognisable sensations, would it still be able to navigate its way back?
In 2013, a cat owner lost his cat during his vacation and could not find it for as long as he sought. In the end, he had to give up as he accepted his faith. His cat would have to remain there, 322 km away from home. He was devastated.
Two months later, the cat showed up in his garden, it looked beaten up and malnourished, but other than that, the cat was fine and happy to be reunited with its owner. The man couldn't believe his own eyes and went to a veterinarian to double-check that this cat had the correct ear tag.
It was his cat. How was that possible, did the cat smell track the trail of his car for two months, did it perform a real-life 'finding Nemo scenario, or do felines have abilities beyond human knowledge and understanding?
For many years, scientists and biologists have discussed how animals can navigate without a map and compass and always find their way. Do they use the stars, do they see things we don't, or do they know purely by instincts?
How do cats find their way home compared to other animals?
To better grasp how cats can navigate, it might help see the bigger picture of how different animals operate. It is a perplexing question, over the years it that has made many scientists and researchers pull their hair out. However, in recent times, there have been discoveries that have helped us understand better.
A tiny creature with huge ambitions– they devote their lives to rolling a ball of dung through long distances. And, somehow, they always walk in the direction of home. Or at least as long as the sky is clear at night. They don't use the road as a map because a ball of dirt blocks their horizon. Instead, as they can only look upwards, they use the milky way as a road map.
We know this because scientists brought dung beetles into a planetarium and observed that if they changed the direction of the stars, the beetles followed.
Bees' eyes work infinitely different from how human eyes work. They can see UV- lights and use light patterns as pointers to find flowers. Scientists from The University of Bristol has recently discovered that bees can also sense static electricity to identify which flowers have already been emptied by other bees. No time wasted.
Migrating birds – Gees
Gees know the way from the Northern stratosphere to the southern and can find a specific location because older generations have taught them how. They orient themselves by using a range of senses to know the time they have travelled and estimate how far is left. For example, they use the sun to evaluate the time of day and understand where they are on their route by using magnetoreception. The earth's magnetic field varies depending on where they are, and they learn to recognise the magnetic strength based on how long they have travelled.
If a young goose loses track of its friends during its first flight– it will probably never get to the destination because it doesn't know the route. The birds that fall off will remain at home for the rest of their lives.
Sea turtles, spiny lobsters, and moths
It's a strange trio, but they all have something in common in how they navigate. They use the earth's magnetic field, sort of how migrating birds do, except they don't pass their knowledge on to younger generations.
Sea turtles hatch on a beach before they instinctively move in a specific direction. And they always find their way back to the same beach they were born.
There's no secret that moths are attracted to light sources. However, if they are in a place where the moon and the stars are the only light sources, they don't try to reach space. Instead, they use the earth's magnetic field to move in the same direction as other moths, so they have a higher chance of reproducing.
Scientists still haven't found out how the mechanism behind how spiny lobsters navigate. But they know that if you put the lobsters in a pool and change the magnetic field above them, they will move according to the changes. And that strongly indicates that they do navigate the same way as the abovementioned.
There have been reports of several different mammals who have some sort of magnetoreceptors. Cows, for example, have been observed grazing facing the same direction. It is still to be confirmed, as they don't always face the same direction. However, magnetic fields above them, such as power lines, could affect their internal compass. Other mammals believed to use magnetoreception is, among others, cats and dogs.
Dogs rely primarily on smell to navigate. During the right circumstances, they can smell their way to almost whatever they want. However, some scientists believe dogs are equipped with magnetoreceptors. That's because observed canines always point their snout in alignment with the earth's north-south axis when defecating.
In 2013, a team of scientists observed the pooping habits of 70 different dogs over two years. The results shocked them, as it confirmed their theory regarding the dogs facing the earth's north-south axis, which implies they too use magnetoreception to navigate their pooping habits. But why they do so remain a mystery, and we still don't know what else they use it for.
A Norwegian scientist, Bjarne Braastad, has made a series of experiments on the cat's ability to navigate and orientate. In the 1980's he brought thirteen cats into a location they had never been before, in the middle of the woods. He then proceeded to remotely release them so he could observe from a distance if they walked in the direction of where they live. Out of the thirteen cats, four of them went all the way home. None of them got lost, but the nine other cats remained in the area and decided to live there.
Braastad's study is inspired by an old German experiment from 1954. Two scientists brought forty-two cats individually into the woods in a concealed radial symmetric cage, which had tunnels going from the middle of the cage into different directions.
They opened all the tunnels simultaneously to see if the cat chose to exit the direction pointing towards home before they had even seen the outside world.
Twenty-one of the cats chose a tunnel pointing in the direction of their home before exploring the outside. None of the cats had been on the location before.
Their discoveries strongly imply that cats have a sense of what direction home is and where they are in the world compared to home.
Like several other animals mentioned, it still hasn't been scientifically proven that they use magnetoreception to navigate, even though there is some evidence. The reason for that is because scientists struggle to understand the exact mechanism behind this manoeuvring.
However, in January 2021, a study from Japan was published. It is a breaking point in understanding animals' ability to navigate using the earth's magnetic field.
Can cats find their way home with the use of magnetoreception?
Many aspects can affect how the earth's magnetic field is perceived and received. For example, a fridge's magnetic field is a thousand times stronger than the earth's. That's why things like power lines and other electrical energy sources can affect the magnetoreception in animals.
Maybe animals that live close to cities have difficulties using their magnetoreceptors because of magnetic pollution. Think about it as light pollution. For example, it would be harder to navigate using the stars in New York compared to the Sahara desert.
That might be why you don't hear about miraculous stories too often, like the cat who trekked 322km to find its way home, because the electrical pollution is disturbing their ability to use the earth's magnetic field.
Also, a house cat might not have had the chance to navigate this way because it has always been inside. If it were to run off, it would sense something but possibly wouldn't know what to do with the information, and therefore, still get lost.
Read more: Why do cat's explore so far from home?
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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sc8uI5Mdus Bjarne Braastad