8. The New Yorker: Why Animals Don’t Get Lost
Generally, I would say I’m better at orienting myself compared to a lot of people my age. I usually don’t have too much trouble reading maps or following directions, and when I do get lost I can backtrack to where I last knew my location. I, however, am by no means a skilled navigator who knows where to go without the help of some technological assistance.
Many animals, particularly birds, can travel thousands of miles to places they might not have been before, or haven’t been since their youth, without getting lost. “Some impressive examples of this ability are widely known,” writes Kathryn Schulz. “Salmon that leave their natal stream just months after hatching can return after years in the ocean, sometimes traversing nine hundred miles and gaining seven thousand feet in elevation to do so. Homing pigeons can return to their lofts from more than a thousand miles away, a navigational prowess that has been admired for ages; five millennia ago, the Egyptians used them, like owls at Hogwarts, as a kind of early airmail.”
People, however, used to be much better navigators before the onset of urbanization. “Early Polynesians, who, about five thousand years ago, began paddling their canoes around a vast area of the Pacific Ocean now known as the Polynesian Triangle: ten million square miles of water, bounded by New Zealand, Hawaii, and Rapa Nui, with perhaps a thousand other islands scattered throughout.” Other cultures over time also had similar navigational skills, but these have atrophied as they haven’t been exercised, and things like light pollution have interfered.
As humans continue to appropriate more and more land, and become louder and louder, the navigational senses of animals can be less effective. Learning more about how animals navigate the world can not only help in conservation efforts—knowing which land is most vital to protect—but, perhaps, “the chief insight to be gleaned from how other animals make their way around the world is not about their behavior but about our own: the way-finding we must learn to do now is not geographic but moral.”