(NaturalNews) Not only can dogs sense the earth's magnetic field, but they can actually use it to orient their bodies when they relieve themselves, according to a study conducted by researchers from the Czech University of Life Sciences and the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, and published in Frontiers in Zoology.
Magnetoreception, or the ability to sense the earth's magnetic field, has been demonstrated in a wide variety of animals, including bees, birds and even some mammals.
"We discovered [by measuring Google Earth aerial pictures] that cattle align with the magnetic field lines a few years ago," researcher Sabine Begall said. "Since then, we studied hunting behavior in [the] red fox and found that they have a preference for N-E during their mousing jumps, and from there it was just a small step to study dogs. First, we looked also at other behaviors but the results were less promising than the 'pooping direction.'"
The current study is the first to demonstrate magnetoreception in dogs.
"Precisely oriented... while pooping"
The researchers observed 70 different dogs of 37 different breeds over the course of two years, measuring how the dogs oriented themselves during a total of 1,893 defecations and 5,582 urinations. In order to control for any influence that humans might have on the dogs' behavior, all humans in the dogs' presence were kept "blind" to magnetic orientation.
The researchers found that unleashed dogs naturally oriented themselves toward magnetic north or south while defecating or urinating and completely avoided facing east or west. This orientation pattern remained consistent regardless of dog breed, sex, time of day, time of year or prevailing weather conditions.
Although the researchers ruled out the possibility that the dogs were merely orienting themselves relative to the sun, they found that the sun did play an unexpected role in the dogs' behavior: solar flares and geomagnetic storms produced temporary disruptions in the earth's magnetic field, causing the dogs to revert to facing in random directions while relieving themselves.
"The dogs are very precisely oriented on the north-south axis while pooping, but only if the magnetic field is stable," researcher Petra Kovakova said.
"On January 6 the magnetic field was very stable, which means that the dogs were very well oriented during pooping," Kovakova said. "On January 2 the magnetic field was very restless and the dogs were pooping in a random fashion."
In fact, natural fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field initially made it difficult for the researchers to discern the underlying pattern in the dogs' behavior.
"We were quite frustrated, because we couldn't find a clear preference for a certain direction," Begall said. "Then, we sorted the data according to the prevailing [magnetic-field] conditions at the time of recording, and this analysis revealed a highly significant and predictable effect."
"It could be that the dogs somehow calibrate their compass or read their 'mental map' during the walks," she said. "Imagine that you read a compass during a hike. If the compass needle is shaky, you might dismiss reading the compass at all. That could be the reason why the dogs have no preference when the [magnetic field] is unstable."
The researchers have no idea why dogs orient themselves toward the poles while relieving themselves.
"It is still enigmatic why the dogs do align at all, whether they do it 'consciously' (i.e., whether the magnetic field is [sensorially] perceived (the dogs 'see', 'hear' or 'smell' the compass direction or perceive it as a haptic stimulus) or whether its reception is controlled on the vegetative level (they 'feel better/more comfortable or worse/less comfortable' in a certain direction) [sic: missing parenthesis]," they wrote.