Animal Navigation


Some very interesting and exciting news on the science front.

First from the Discovery Institute this report on recent discoveries regarding the amazing ability of many very different animals to navigate long distances with great accuracy.

Discovery references several articles – from “nature materials” we read:

Here, we report a putative magnetic receptor (Drosophila CG8198, here named MagR) and a multimeric magnetosensing rod-like protein complex, identified by theoretical postulation and genome-wide screening, and validated with cellular, biochemical, structural and biophysical methods. The magnetosensing complex consists of the identified putative magnetoreceptor and known magnetoreception-related photoreceptor cryptochromes (Cry), has the attributes of both Cry- and iron-based systems, and exhibits spontaneous alignment in magnetic fields, including that of the Earth. Such a protein complex may form the basis of magnetoreception in animals, and may lead to applications across multiple fields. [Emphasis added.]

From Nature News an article Discovery of long-sought biological compass claimed  

“ … The biocompass — whose constituent proteins exist in related forms in other species, including humans — could explain a long-standing puzzle: how animals such as birds and insects sense magnetism. It might also become an invaluable tool for using magnetic fields to control cells, report researchers led by biophysicist Xie Can at Peking University in Beijing, in a paper published on 16 November in Nature Materials (S. Qin et al. Nature Mater., 2015). … “


Sceptical voices

“ … Other scientists are not convinced that the biological needles function like compasses in living organisms. Xie’s team has shown that MagR and Cry are produced in the same cells in pigeon retinas — the birds’ proposed magnetoreception centre — but MagR and Cry are found in many cells, says Keays. “With such a small amount of iron, one has to ask whether in vivo, at physiological temperatures, MagR is capable of possessing magnetic properties at all,” he says. “If MagR is the real magnetoreceptor, I’ll eat my hat.” … “

Turtle-magnetite-compass (1).jpg

I’ll place my bet on  Keays eating his hat — and here’s why:

My profession and trade for many years was in Software Development, and in particular with Cubic Defense Systems helping develop software for the widely acclaimed Top Gun training system known as TACTS/ACMI.



TACTS/ACMI (Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System/Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation) is a system I worked on for many years. The system, in its early versions, tracked fast and maneuvering fighter jets by interrogating each aircraft with a set of four ranging tones (frequencies). These tones received at the aircraft were then re-transmitted to surveyed ground receivers and then passed on to a master station. At the master station, the aircraft position in x/y/z was computed based on the surveyed positions of the ground stations, and the arrival of the four ranging frequencies. In other words, the distance from the aircraft to each of the receiving ground station was measured and thus the position is made known.

The key point here is that the aircraft is maneuvering in the presence of a well understood radio frequency spectrum, and is interfacing directly with that spectrum thus providing real-time navigational data.



Another navigational system developed by humans is the Global Positioning System (GPS). By now most of us are familiar with GPS, and many of us carry a GPS receiver in our pocket smart phone. The TACTS/ACMI system I briefly described above eventually transitioned to GPS as its positioning system. The concepts are very similar, but with GPS, the only dependency on ground stations is to relay aircraft data to a master site for viewing and recording.

The commonality between human designed and developed systems and animal navigation is that in both cases, the participants — fish, birds, turtles, whales, jet fighter aircraft –participants are bathed in electro-magnetic fields which in theory (animals) and practice (TACTS/ACMI), can be used to accurately position the participants. With the ongoing research,  it is becoming more evident that many animals navigate using the earth electro-magnetic fields.

Keep an eye out for the development of practical application of this research – I have a few ideas of my own.


Don Johnson – November 2015


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