And why this research is unlikely to get funded in New Zealand
Last week I got to briefly talk science on George FM Breakfast. The invitation came care of my friend Clarke Gayford, the new George FM Breakfast co-host. I taught Clarke to ice fish in Antarctica (you can see our full escapades here) and perhaps as payback for making him occasionally take his gloves off in the great icy outdoors, he sent me this link to discuss what I thought about a particular item in the link: #5 Dogs use an internal compass when they poop.
Despite the seemingly unpleasant topic, the actual research article by Hart et al from the Czech Republic made for a very interesting, thought provoking read (popular press articles above and here). We’re very used to senses such as hearing, sight and taste but one that’s not very familiar to us is magnetoreception, where an organism can detect a magnetic field. This ability to sense magnetic fields is known as magnetosensitivity.
Several diverse animal species are known to align their body axis to magnetic fields (e.g. foxes, cattle, deer) and now we can add our canine friends to the list. In a two year study of 70 different dogs covering 37 breeds, an impressive total of 1893 defecation and 5582 urination events were recorded and then the data compared with magnetic field state at the time of excretion.
How did the researchers come up with such a seemingly left-field project? Magnetoreceptive behaviours happen across mammalian species in diverse contexts. Birds, bees, bats and bacteria as well as turtles, sharks and some other fish also snap to magnetic fields. For most species, the primary theory is that such alignment is used for navigation. Begall, one of the researchers in the dog study had previously found that grazing and resting cattle tend to align to magnetic field lines- you might remember this when it came out. This occurred when other factors (wind direction, sun position, curiosity) were negligible (unified herding behaviour possibly). We’ve probably all observed this too in clement weather, driving along past paddocks of cows wondering why they were all facing the same way.
The idea of magnetoreception is not viewed however, without skepticism. An attempt to replicate the cattle study by another group failed to find the same result- replication issues are becoming a major scientific issue, especially in the biomedical field. Begall and colleagues however, went on to use Google Earth aerial data to demonstrate the same finding as their original paper, suggesting their first results were indeed valid. They then looked at foxes and found they also seem to use magnetoreception when hunting (lining themselves up N-E for mousing jumps), and so looking at dogs became their next logical step (owing to homing ability and relationship to foxes).
They state that “dogs are still readily used as experimental animals”- somewhat of a difference between Eastern Europe and here, perhaps? Initially they looked for spontaneous alignment during a range of behaviours (resting, feeding, excreting) before, for reasons relating to number of independent data points, they settled on the least pleasant of all- excretion, including territory marking.
In a sensible move, 37 dog owners/reporters were recruited, meaning the researchers didn’t need to observe dog toiletries themselves. Dogs had to be unleashed and in unconstrained open field situations and away from high voltage power lines etc with defecation or urination measured with a handheld compass. It was only when the researchers looked at all their data and at the geomagnetic conditions at the time of each event that the researchers started to detect a significant pattern.
What was the pattern they found? During defecation both male and female dogs tend to align N-S. Whilst females stick to N-S during urination, males instead align N-W – this difference might be due to the classic leg-lift scenario in male dogs. However, doggy alignment for either #1’s or #2’s was only observed when the magnetic field was calm (it can vary greatly during the day and is typically only calm 20% of each day). When the magnetic field was unstable, any alignment of the dogs was abolished to the point where only 30% of excretion events saw conditions stable enough for alignment.
The best predictor for a shift in behaviour from aligning to no alignment was the degree of declination (deviation of magnetic north from true (geographic) north- which varies with place and time). Although the intensity of the magnetic field has been suggested to disturb alignment in birds and bees and other animals, this is the first time that declination itself has been examined.
I’m not sure though what was going on with one of the dogs in the study- a single male borzoi (Russian wolfhound) contributed 44% of the 5582 urination events, which in two years means 2456 pees, or 3.4 pees a day.
He should probably receive a dog treat for that effort or at least a kidney/bladder exam.
So what does all this lining up N-S or N-E mean for dogs when excreting (and their owners)? This is the bit that is a bit tricky- the authors simply don’t really know. Is it conscious (sensorially perceived) or do they just feel better doing it this way?
There are a few issues with the study, however. This study was a form of citizen science whereby recorders were the dog owners- it’s possible there were biases in data collection, adherence to the constraints (away from power lines, unleashed etc) that are unknown to the researchers, or that compass measurements weren’t always recorded accurately. One of the major issues from the results is that normal geomagnetic conditions only occurred during 30% of the excretion events recorded. That means that 70% of the time (majority) dogs were not excreting in alignment with magnetic fields.
One idea for why dogs do this alignment is that it is a bit like reading (and potentially creating) a road map and hence tied up with navigation. If the geomagnetic field is calm then the map is effectively in focus for the dog and they can respond to it by aligning. If the geomagnetic field is not calm, then the map is not in focus (in other words they can’t calibrate their landmarks, or visual map with the magnetic compass) and no alignment is possible. This may involve either over-riding or shutting down the actual magnetoreception mechanism. What exactly the mechanism is within cells remains to be seen.
This is where it gets tricky though from my perspective. Part of the activity of alignment while excreting could be to produce a ‘trail’ for them-self or even for others in a pack to follow. This is a more useful purpose perhaps, rather than just at the point they excrete conducting a check or calibration of the map. How then would they (or another dog in the pack following them, speaking of their evolutionary roots) differentiate when returning on that trail between a urination or defecation event that was done in alignment versus one that wasn’t and especially if when coming past the same point again the magnetic field was also unstable?
Also, the study is only observational in nature, albeit with correlations, and so there is a lot more need for mechanistic studies that actually look at what is happening inside the dog and inside cells to allow the proposed magnetoreception to occur. As such, it’s a starting point for further studies.
Why this research wouldn’t happen in New Zealand
The researchers involved were from the Czech Republic and Germany and the research was supported by a grant from the Czech Republic. This type of research would be classified as ‘blue skies’ research.
In New Zealand there has been a sustained and significant shift towards applied research for many years and we now have comparatively less blue skies research available, even if sum total of blue skies funds have increased over time. The major blue skies fund is the Marsden Fund, but it’s hard to envisage that the type of research presented in the article would be Marsden material.
There are smaller blue skies funds but again I can’t really imagine this research fitting nicely into many of those funding programmes either. It certainly doesn’t fit the mould of the new National Science Challenges- big, multidisciplinary projects tackling ‘the big issues’ facing New Zealanders. Even dog owners would probably agree it isn’t one of the big issues.
Thus, it’s unlikely that this kind of research would be funded within New Zealand. There are reasons though why perhaps research of this kind (not necessarily this work) should receive attention. Recently, there was an enlightening interview with the Nobel Prize winner Sydney Brenner on how academia and publishing are destroying scientific innovation.
In that interview, he discusses why the current research environment makes the kinds of breakthroughs he and his molecular biological colleagues made unlikely or near impossible today.
He said: “The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow. There’s no exploration any more except in a very few places.”
Dog defecation studies might seem a strange pursuit. It’s just possible though that such studies have the potential to unlock something far more magical than doggy doo.