The animal world abounds with extraordinary tales of navigation. Creatures as diverse as whale sharks, sea turtles, dragonflies, Arctic terns and reindeer all make long-distance migrations, regularly returning to the same haunts year in, year out. But there are other, less well-known feats, such as the seed-finding abilities of Clark’s nuthatch, which somehow remembers the positions of as many as 6,000 seed caches it has created over an area of about 260 square kilometres.
So how do they do it? In Incredible Journeys, David Barrie sets out to find out. The book hews to a now familiar template: fascinated/intrigued/slightly obsessed author travels far and wide talking to eminent experts to illuminate the subject at hand, weaving tales of his travels together with anecdotes related to the research he’s describing. Each chapter sets up a new navigational mystery and then describes the ingenious experiments used to discover the underlying mechanism that allows the animal in question to get to where it needs to be.
As Barrie points out, there’s still a lot we don’t know about animal navigation, but what we do know points to the use of a myriad of different techniques and innate abilities, including mental maps of local landmarks, celestial objects or geomagnetic gradients, step counting, sun compasses, the perception of polarised light, internal clocks and a keen sense of smell. Generally, animals will use a combination of methods, and the often complex processing of different environmental cues by creatures such as bees and ants, which have tiny brains, is nothing short of staggering.
If I have a criticism, it’s that the book lacks a certain coherence – it often feels like a meandering collection of anecdotes in search of some sort of structural framework. But nonetheless, this ‘incredible journey’ through the science of the techniques that animals use to find their way around never fails to fascinate.
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