How do animals keep from getting lost?

Showcased at the Royal Institute of Navigation is this interesting piece on animal migration.

Maura O’Connor is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. Her first book is: “Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things,” from St. Martin’s Press. She is currently at work on a second book – an exploration of navigation traditions, neuroscience, and human relationships to space, time and memory.

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Cuckoo Migration

Cuckoo Migration is one of the great mysteries and to date there is still no agreement on how Cuckoos find their way to the Congo for the winter starting from different locations in Europe.
The team at Copenhagen University under Prof Kasper Thorup have been  able to tag fledgling cuckoos to follow their migration.  The link shows their results.  The British trust for Ornithology (BTO)  has been forbidden from tagging young birds as these are deemed too small to carry the extra load of a transmitter.  But you will see their results on older birds which seem similar to the fledglings.
See :
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Long-Distance Nocturnal Navigator

Warrant11 2016

Here is a fascinating paper about The Australian Bogong Moth Agrotis infusa: which is the most amazing  Long-Distance Nocturnal Navigator.  As they navigate at night their feat is perhaps even more amazing than the migration of the Monarch butterfly in the USA.

Richard Nissen

Warrant E, Frost B, Green K, Mouritsen H, Dreyer D, Adden A, Brauburger K and Heinze S (2016) The Australian Bogong Moth Agrotis infusa: A Long-Distance Nocturnal Navigator. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 10:77. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00077


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Annual Conference of Dowsers on Animal Navigation

In September 2015 I was asked to give a workshop at the Annual Conference of Dowsers on Animal Navigation.

Of course I talked about how animals, including birds, navigate and all the outstanding questions that remain on how they do it.

Those who came to my presentation were some of the best dowsers in the UK. I chose to use my presentation to see if these dowsers could use their dowsing skills to answer these outstanding questions on animal navigation.

Please note that map dowsing is a technique used by dowsers who use a map to focus their minds on something that they are looking for. All water diviners use map dowsing to find the general location of a water source so that when they arrive on site they can go directly to the right place and mark the exact place to drill.

My idea was to use these skills to see if these dowsers could find the routes of fledgling cuckoos. We cannot track fledglings using modern GPS or any other tracking devices attached to the fledglings as they are too young and not strong enough to carry the trackers.

Dowsers have the idea that all living animals, including humans, leave dowsable trails behind them. So dowsers can find paths or routes that have been travelled and embedded by many generations of travellers. A good dowser can follow a track just by feeling the way. You can track sheep walks in with no problems in zero visibility. So this piece of work was to see if good dowsers could find and follow cuckoo tracks.

The answer was they could and they did find and follow the tracks of cuckoos. Of the 17 participating all but one was able to do this work. Of the 16 who participated, and agreed they could tune into cuckoo flyways, all ended up in the Congo. It was never explained that this is the cuckoo wintering ground. All the tracks make sense. One person identified that the cuckoo he was tracking had died in the atlas mountains of Morocco. One person had their cuckoo coming down via the south of France and out over the Mediterranean Sea to the Congo and back up the west coast of Africa. All the routes dowsed match BTO adult tracked birds.

I have suggested that migratory animals have a sense of direction. By this I mean they know what direction to set out in. Many do not believe that a sense of direction exists. So the question to the dowsers was, “do you have a sense of direction and do you rely on it”

Of the 17 participants 15 said they had a sense of direction and used it and two did not.

I received 17 papers back from the participants

The document I used is reproduced below.

Use map dowsing to track the migration routes of the Cuckoo (starting in Britain), you may only find one 







Mark the map with your route.   I suggest that you think yourself into the mind of a fledgling cuckoo trying to find its wintering grounds. Start in England and trace the route that you pick up to the Cuckoos wintering grounds in Africa

Please note that there are several routes so there is no right answer. There seem to be stopping points and turning points so if you find some mark them

Below is the map that the dowsers were asked to use.

The picture of the cuckoo is to help the dowsers focus on what they were tracking fledgling cuckoos!

The map they used is shown below>







Below you can see three samples of the routes the dowsers traced out using map dowsing to follow the route of a fledgling cuckoo

All these routes seem to be viable to me


After looking for the cuckoo routes, they were asked if their Sense of Direction could take them home. By this I mean that they had confidence in the direction they should start off in from where they were in the conference centre in Leicester.

Of the 17:
14 said that they would have got home Ok
3 said that they were not sure.

Migration for animals has a high redundancy and a lot get killed or die on route. But typically clutches are say 6 so you can afford to loose a few. Hwever, this sort of score given by my dowsers gives me confidence that if we take away our modern navigation aids we can find our way. Obviously more work needs to be done but this does give an explanation of how animals might navigate.

You do not need to be too accurate when you set out but you must be accurate enough to get near enough your home to recognise landmarks so that you can orientate your self for the last bit. See much work on Hippocampus based navigation on the web site.


A group of experienced dowsers believed they had a sense of direction and with this they thought that they would set out for home in the correct direction so that they would arrive home safely.

These dowsers were able to tune into the cuckoos and dowse a route which correlates very well with the BTO studies of adult cuckoos. I did not tell them where the cuckoos winter!

See the links on

As we do not understand how dowsing works perhaps we should be more open minded about how animals navigate and investigate these phenomena.

Richard Nissen

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A complete overview of animal navigation 2015

This link is a very complete overview of the animal navigation at present in 2015.  It covers all the important work that has been done and discusses what has been found along with all the problems associated with different approaches.

As you will see it ends up by saying that we still do not know how animals navigate.  This is of course our stance at

We are still fascinated by the fledgling cuckoo problem:  how do they inherit the instructions of how to get to their wintering grounds in the Congo?

Richard Nissen

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Migration observation

I love this little observation by James Mather…

“I was on a ladder clearing the gutters end of last week, and over a period of hours heard a number of flocks of birds gathering to migrate, and I could see them heading off in V-formation. Then, at one point, low cloud closed in, but I could hear birds,  but not see them. Then, I happened to look up to see through a small gap in the cloud, a formation directly overhead.

So, the formation of the group and its initial direction were set without any visual reference. They were navigating by other means.”

We agree that animals navigate my other means and we think that it is likely that they have a sense of direction as they set out.  The “V” shape allows a leader to do all the work and the others to use the slip stream to use less energy.

Work at Oxford suggests that the more navigators (lead birds) in a flock the better as they all nudge each other to find the best route and the result is the course is the best course as adapted by them all.

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The Wayfinders of the South Seas

I was looking through an old copy of Classic Boat magazine (September 2004) when I discovered this article on how traditional Polynesian navigators operated.

I have précised this article. For me, the importance of all this is that humans are animals but we can communicate together so that insights on how we navigated before the modern era may help us understand how animals might navigate too. Our problem is always, “how do animals inherit the information they need to navigate”.

Polynesian navigation was a complex science handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. A skilled navigator (Palu) was held in high regard. His training required him to develop acute powers of observation and memory. By the time a Palu graduated he possessed an intricate knowledge of the sun, stars and planets, his geographical environment for a radius of a thousand miles and how to read the waves and clouds.

The Polynesian navigator orientated himself from home by keeping a mental record of all courses steered since departure and any factors that might affect the course. This is just what dead reckoning is. At any stage he could run through this data and tell you the approximate direction of his home and roughly how long it would take to get there. Did they posses a sense of direction, I ask?

Observation of natural features was very important. The departing canoe would look out for landmarks as long as they were available, then use the rising and setting positions of stars to guide them by. They knew their stars and what rose up and set where. It is easier in these latitudes as the stars come up virtually vertically over the horizon. These star sights along with their local knowledge of such things as the winds, currents, ocean swells, and relative locations of islands, reefs and sea lanes put everything in context.

When the sky is overcast, a helmsman could maintain his course relative to the ocean swells or wind. Low lying islands in the distance were identified by distinctive cloud formations, reflected swells, drifting flotsam, or the sighting of shore birds.

Certain stars were known; their reach, their zenith over certain islands, while a night entrance through a reef passage might be made by lining up a geographical feature with a star close to the horizon.

Richard Nissen

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