Conversations about animal navigation…

At a recent meeting of the Royal Institute of Navigation I met Jon Ward.

Jon was brought up in Africa as a boy and spent much time roaming the countryside and going to distant villages out of sight of his home.

We talked about Animal navigation and I told him that I thought that as humans are animals too, animals are likely to use the same methods to navigate by as we do when we do not rely on instruments.

Work by Prof Kate Jeffery of University College London tells us that her rats have an on-board compass which is a hemispherical display of neurons which operates when the rat turns its head. With head direction known and an odometer of the distance travelled you have a dead reckoning system.

Other enquiries of mine have discovered that indeed navigation without instruments is not a cognitive operation. It is not carried out by the conscious front cortex but rather the sub conscious. In prof Jeffery’s rats in the navigational area is inside the hippocampus (part of our subconscious). This is born out with my discussions with native people who simply cannot describe how they navigate through difficult terrain which is often featureless or it is dark.

Jon and others I have spoken to said they never go lost on their journeys when he was younger and were never worried that they would. But he adds that when a person is alone that is the test of confidence, the navigator must then use their own ideas ‘whatever they are’ to get from A – B, primitive people grow up learning these skills from their elders and often the skills relate to only their area of need, moving cattle, hunting for food, navigating between islands, some of these trips may take days to accomplish. The navigator may have no concept of North and East or South and West, but his survival is dependant on different elements. After all that is what is important to him.

He made some very interesting observations about his journeys though, He said he was always very conscious of the time of year and therefore where the sun would be at different times.

Jon explained that an acute sense of smell was very important. For instance he could smell grasses and know that they were in the shade of had not been heated by the sun because of their smell. This sort of information gives you orientation

There has been a lot of work by Italian teams such as Anna Gagliardo of the Department of Biology Pisa, Italy.  For instance, they have released Shearwaters about 400 km from their home colony and birds made anosmic by washing the olfactory mucosa with zinc sulphate, which destroys specifically olfactory neurons.  The birds where the olfactory neurons were destroyed got lost and never made it home.  Gagliardo also says that homing pigeons use olfaction for navigation. So I am sure that it is these sort of olfactory cues that the birds use too, recent work on other sea birds seems to underline smell as an important navigational tool especially in the featureless (to us) ocean.

We must remember that all navigators use all the information available to them all the time and if some clues are missing then you rely on others as you can. It seems that landmarks are very important.

Talking to the Sami people in the featureless north of Sweden (in the winter) these used topography and the prevailing wind to navigate by.

Jon is interesting in that he later joined the Navy (before GPS) and was in charge of getting his ship home from At a recent meeting of the Royal Institute of Navigation I met John Ward

John was brought up in Africa as a boy and spent much time roaming the countryside and going to distant villages out of sight of his home

We talked about Animal navigation and I told him that I thought that as humans are animals too, animals are likely to use the same methods to navigate by as we do when we do not rely on instruments.

Work by Prof Kate Jeffery of University College London tells us that her rats have an on-board compass which is a hemispherical display of neurons which operates when the rat turns its head. With head direction known and an odometer of the distance travelled you have a dead reckoning system.

Other enquiries of mine have discovered that indeed navigation without instruments is not a cognitive operation. It is not carried out by the conscious front cortex but rather the sub conscious. In prof Jeffery’s rats in the navigational area is inside the hippocampus (part of our subconscious). This is born out with my discussions with native people who simply cannot describe how they navigate through difficult terrain which is often featureless or it is dark.

John and others I have spoken to said they never go lost on their journeys when he was younger and were never worried that they would. But he adds that when a person is alone that is the test of confidence, the navigator must then use their own ideas ‘whatever they are’  to get from A – B, primitive people grow up learning these skills from their elders and often the skills relate to only their area of need, moving cattle, hunting for food, navigating between islands, some of these trips may take days to accomplish. The navigator may have no concept of North and East or South and West, but his survival is dependant on different elements. After all that is what is important to him.

He made some very interesting observations about his journeys though, He said he was always very conscious of the time of year and therefore where the sun would be at different times.

John explained that an acute sense of smell was very important. For instance he could smell grasses and know that they were in the shade of had not been heated by the sun because of their smell. This sort of information gives you orientation.

There has been a lot of work by Italian teams such as Anna Gagliardo of the Department of Biology Pisa, Italy.  For instance, they have released Shearwaters about 400 km from their home colony and birds made anosmic by washing the olfactory mucosa with zinc sulphate, which destroys specifically olfactory neurons.  The ones where the olfactory neurons were destroyed go lost and never made it home.  Gagliardo also says that homing pigeons use olfaction for navigation. So I am sure that it is these sort of olfactory cues that the birds use too, recent work on other sea birds seems to underline smells as an important navigational tool especially in the featureless (to us) ocean.

We must remember that all navigators use all the information available to them all the time and if some clues are missing then you rely on others as you can. It seems that landmarks are very important.

Talking to the Sami people in the featureless north of Sweden (in the winter) these used topography and the prevailing wind to navigate by.

John is interesting in that he later joined the Navy (before GPS) and was in charge of getting his ship home from At a recent meeting of the Royal Institute of Navigation I met John Ward.

John was brought up in Africa as a boy and spent much time roaming the countryside and going to distant villages out of sight of his home.

We talked about Animal navigation and I told him that I thought that as humans are animals too, animals are likely to use the same methods to navigate by as we do when we do not rely on instruments.

Work by Prof Kate Jeffery of University College London tells us that her rats have an on-board compass which is a hemispherical display of neurons which operates when the rat turns its head. With head direction known and an odometer of the distance travelled you have a dead reckoning system.

Other enquiries of mine have discovered that indeed navigation without instruments is not a cognitive operation. It is not carried out by the conscious front cortex but rather the sub conscious. In prof Jeffery’s rats in the navigational area is inside the hippocampus (part of our subconscious). This is born out with my discussions with native people who simply cannot describe how they navigate through difficult terrain which is often featureless or it is dark.

John and others I have spoken to said they never go lost on their journeys when he was younger and were never worried that they would. But he adds that when a person is alone that is the test of confidence, the navigator must then use their own ideas ‘whatever they are’  to get from A – B, primitive people grow up learning these skills from their elders and often the skills relate to only their area of need, moving cattle, hunting for food, navigating between islands, some of these trips may take days to accomplish. The navigator may have no concept of North and East or South and West, but his survival is dependant on different elements. After all that is what is important to him.

He made some very interesting observations about his journeys though, He said he was always very conscious of the time of year and therefore where the sun would be at different times.

John explained that an acute sense of smell was very important. For instance he could smell grasses and know that they were in the shade of had not been heated by the sun because of their smell. This sort of information gives you orientation

There has been a lot of work by Italian teams such as Anna Gagliardo of the Department of Biology Pisa, Italy.  For instance, they have released Shearwaters about 400 km from their home colony and birds made anosmic by washing the olfactory mucosa with zinc sulphate, which destroys specifically olfactory neurons.  The ones where the olfactory neurons were destroyed go lost and never made it home.  Gagliardo also says that homing pigeons use olfaction for navigation. So I am sure that it is these sort of olfactory cues that the birds use too, recent work on other sea birds seems to underline smells as an important navigational tool especially in the featureless (to us) ocean.

We must remember that all navigators use all the information available to them all the time and if some clues are missing then you rely on others as you can. It seems that landmarks are very important.

Talking to the Sami people in the featureless north of Sweden (in the winter) these used topography and the prevailing wind to navigate by.

John is interesting in that he later joined the Navy (before GPS) and was in charge of getting his ship home from Cape Town to just south of the Canaries. The ship was enveloped in fog for several days so there was no possibility of a sextant sight. But when he was able to check his position he found that the dead reckoning that he had been working on had not let him down and he was where he thought he should be.

There are many examples of people who said that they had a great “sense of direction” being completely disorientated by trying to navigate in the southern hemisphere when they had lived their lives in the Northern one. Jon’s other important point is that aborigine navigators work well in their home range. Wilfred Thesiger, the explorer, found that when crossing the empty quarter in Arabia he had to use his compass to find his way and save them from certain death as the native guides were lost as they were not in their territory.

There is no magic method for navigation but the clever use of all the information that is at hand. It seems the people best at navigation with a sense of direction are probably the best at reading the landscape and collecting all the available information. We must remember that the Australian Aborigines used song lines and the Polynesians also use the stars to navigate by.

Jon Ward and Richard Nissen
October 2017

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