We like to think we’re special, don’t we? But when it comes to navigation some animal species make us humans look pretty feeble.
Everyone knows about the amazing ability of pigeons to find their way back to their lofts. But what about butterflies? Or seals? Or salmon? Or even dung beetles?
Research is revealing more and more fascinating details about how different species find their way – over thousands of miles or maybe just a few yards.
They don’t use sextants of course – or instruments of any kind. Newly-emerged Monarch butterflies for example can find their way from breeding grounds in the eastern USA to a small patch of forest in the mountains of central Mexico where they pass the winter. They make use of a kind of sun-compass: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monarch butterfly
The homing skills of the pigeon are still a bit mysterious but it seems they involve a magnetic sense, coupled with a sun compass. They can also hear low-frequency sounds – like those produced by the breaking of waves – and can use these to find their way. And it now appears that salmon use the earth’s magnetism to find their way back to the rivers where they hatched: http://thescienceofreality.tumblr.com/post/42800293584/first-evidence-that-magnetism-helps-salmon-find-home
The dung beetle is more of star-gazer. Recent research shows that they use the orientation of the Milky Way to help them roll dung balls back to their nests by the shortest route: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212015072
And honey bees use polarised sunlight to find their way to and from their hives when out foraging.
Some migrating birds make use of Polaris and Harbour seals too can steer by the stars: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18465153.
So we are certainly not the only celestial navigators!