Natural Navigation: Taking Pointers from Wildlife Travelers

“Starting Route…”

Imagine never needing to hear those two words again – to know how to get around a campsite or trail without needing a GPS or map. How great would that be?

When I go camping, I often need a map to help me get from point A to point B, yet, I rarely see directionally challenged wildlife. As wildlife can show us, there are other ways to navigate.

Wildlife have incredible innate GPS systems that help them migrate and locate mating, nesting, feeding, or temporary camping grounds. To find their way, wildlife use the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth’s magnetic field, landmarks, and other natural indicators.

If you’re sitting by a campfire, you may spot or hear some of these nighttime travelers making their journeys by the stars.

Mallard ducks

Mallard ducks. Photo by ViaMoi via Flickr Creative Commons

Many bird species, like mallard ducks, owls, and orioles rely on stars such as Betelgeuse and the North Star to determine their travel route. In fact, most birds migrate at night, using the stars as their guide.

Research by Cornell scientist Stephen Emlen in 1967 first showed that juvenile Indigo Buntings use star patterns like a compass. In Emlen’s study, he demonstrated that birds learn a north-south orientation from a rotational star pattern. This natural tendency has been reported in a variety of bird species.

indigo buntings

Indigo Buntings. Photo by Janet and Phil via Flickr Creative Commons

Birds do not memorize constellations like we do, but instead learn to direct themselves based on the movement of the star patterns each night. While camping, use a telescope to see migrating birds at night as they fly across the moon. Or listen carefully. Some expert birds can identify nighttime migrants by their chirps as they pass overhead, yet can’t be seen.

dung beetle

Dung beetle preparing to fly. Photo by Steve Slater via Flickr Creative Commons

Another wildlife species that navigates by stars is the dung beetle. Based on a study done by biologist Marie Dacke of Lund University in Sweden, dung beetles use the Milky Way to point themselves in the right direction. Regardless of the moon’s visibility, Dacke found that dung beetles responded most to the Milky Way’s light. Whenever the Milky Way was not discernible, the beetles wandered aimlessly. Dacke reasoned that other nocturnal insects also probably use the light of the Milky Way as their directional bearing.

See a video of how dung beetles navigate by stars: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/ask-smithsonian/ask-smithsonian-are-humans-the-only-animals/?no-ist

Keep an eye out for these wild travelers and others when you camp out this summer!

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