GAVIN: Welcome back everybody, we are now joined by David Barrie, the author of Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way, he is our expert on our topic on animal navigation. Thank you for joining us, David.
DAVID: It's great to be with you!
GAVIN: I'm going to just ask one question to kick it off and then I'll kind of let Zito go because I know he's got some questions for you, too. This podcast is really a little bit about discovering curiosities and following through on them. What got you into this topic originally?
DAVID: Well when I was a really small kid, like 5 or 6, I got interested in particularly insects, butterflies, moths and stuff like that, partly because I was encouraged by my grandfather. They also had this wonderful teacher at school who was really knowledgeable about all that stuff. He ran a moth trap at the school, and when we came in in the morning, in the summer months, the first thing we did was go to the moth trap and we'd look at all the moths that had been attracted to the light. And Mr. Steadman, that was his name, he would talk us through it and say, well that's this and that's that. And so I got really interested in insects, especially moths back then, and the truth, is I still am.
I've done a whole lot of different things in my life. I've been a diplomat, I've run an arts festival, I've run an art charity, I've worked on campaigning on criminal justice reform here in the UK and on drug policy reform. I've written books and I studied experimental psychology at college, and that included quite a lot of animal behavioral stuff. And I'm a sailor, perhaps the most important thing is I learned how to navigate at sea.
In fact, I wrote a book called Sextant, which is all about how celestial navigation works and how it completely transformed the way human beings found their way around. And it led eventually to the first accurate maps being made of the world, and so on and so forth. So I've been interested in insects, animals, animal behavior, and I'm interested in navigation. I'm very slow. I eventually realized I needed to bring the two things together and find out more about the science of animal navigation. And I didn't really know what a big thing I was biting off. It was huge, huge. I've got about 2000 scientific papers on my computer.
GAVIN: Oh my God.
DAVID: And it's going up all the time because they'd come out... In fact, this week has been a big week because they've been some really important new papers that has just been published in the journal Nature about how birds may be detecting the Earth's magnetic field.
GAVIN: Oh, fascinating.
DAVID: It sort of confirms what I described in the book, but it takes it a stage further. I mean, picking up on what Zito said, it is just awesome that our fellow creatures, especially little tiny things like ants, bees and butterflies can do stuff that we can't do, except with the help of technology. They can navigate over huge distances and find tiny targets.
There are of course some human beings still, mostly indigenous peoples, who are still amazingly good at navigation, but I the think truth is that we've become more and more dependent on technology. And the more dependent you are on technology, the less good you are at navigating without it, putting it very crudely.
And of course the huge, the absolutely epoch-making revolution in navigation came with the invention of GPS, which is simultaneously one of the most miraculous technological feats — I mean it is breathtaking, and we all now depend on it — but it's also the reason why pretty quickly the entire human race is turning into a bunch of navigational idiots, because we don't need to navigate anymore. We just turn on our iPhone or whatever, and it's all done for us.
Anyway, I kind of worry about that because I actually think that navigation is such a fundamental set of skills. Every animal on the face of the planet with the power of motion needs to be able to navigate, even if it's only that far and we're losing those skills. It's part of our deep heritage and history, and it's part of what makes us human and we're just kind of jettisoning it. And we don't really know yet what the consequences of that are going to be.
Although, there are some scientists who are already saying, "Look, the bits of your brain that do the navigation, you know, the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex, those are going to shrink if you don't use them." We know that that does happen, and it may be that actually, this is going to be quite serious, but I think it's too soon to say for sure.
I just feel almost like at a kind of spiritual level, we're stepping off a cliff without even really knowing that we're doing it. It's just so beguiling. You know, you have your little phone and it makes it so easy, and why should you bother? Lots of people now don't know where north is. It's crazy.
GAVIN: I want to come back to that towards the end because I do think there's this weird intersection between people and animals and kind of looking at that. But before we go deeper on that because I do want to come back to it. Zito, what do you want to know? Let's get into it.
ZITO: Well you just kinda talked a little bit about it, which is one of my first questions was like, why is there such a tremendous gulf between how humans can navigate in the world versus how even the smallest animal can navigate? Like, a fly just has an incredible idea of how to go around places, how to find the things that it needs. Whereas human beings, even without technology, it was still already kind of pretty difficult without looking for different stars in the sky for us. Why is there such an immense gulf between animal navigation and human navigation?
DAVID: It's a really good question. I think different animals use different navigational systems. And if you look at vertebrates, you know, sort of mammals and reptiles and birds and what have you, they use a lot of the same navigational tools and techniques that we used to use and that people like the Polynesian Islanders and the Inuit up in the Arctic still use. So I'm not sure that deep down there is a huge difference.
The truth is that they're mostly better at it than we are. Maybe they're better at it because their lives depend on it in a way that ours don't any longer. And I'm sure, as I said before, I think with the arrival of different kinds of technology, starting with things like a magnetic compass... We've had the magnetic compass for getting on for a thousand years, and that doesn't seem now like a very powerful piece of technology, but boy, that was huge. When people discovered that you can have a little device and you could look at a needle and you could tell which way you were going, that was huge.
So I think we're not terrifically well equipped by nature, compared to other animals. We've got a basic toolkit there that we can use if we want to, but increasingly, we've been turning our back on it and we're not practicing, we're not learning stuff. We're not learning how to find the north star, we're not learning how to navigate with a map, and at the same time, we're becoming more and more heavily dependent on technology. And I think those two pressures, if you like, are responsible for the problems we now face, but it is breathtaking.
One of the scientists that I interviewed... it doesn't appear in the book because there was lots of stuff that didn't kind of make the cut. But I met a wonderful scientist at Caltech who works on fruit flies, tiny things, and most people think they're just a bit of a nuisance and they end up in a wine glass or whatever. But actually, nobody really thought they went very far, but he and his team have discovered that they go huge distances and they're really, really good at finding their way. You know, these tiny, tiny little flies. He's done these extraordinary experiments out in Death Valley, they put a bit of a fruity mess down on the desert floor. And then they release flies from different places all around, it’s amazing, and the flies will go kilometers across the desert and they'll find this stuff, no trouble.
GAVIN: Isn't a fruit fly’s life measured in days?
DAVID: The truth to tell, I don't know, I think you're probably right, but that means they gotta go fast.
ZITO: It’s like, you got two days to live, you need to do a lot.
DAVID: It is breathtaking. There are these dragonflies that fly across the Indian ocean, they migrate across the whole ocean. I mean we know about the Monarch butterfly and that's amazing.
ZITO: I was going to mention that. I was going to mention the Monarch butterflies because those tend to be my favorite. I think they're are a lot of people's favorite animals in terms of migration. When they’re migrating, there's just a ton of them surrounding like a city space and you just see them in the sky and it's so beautiful. But I think that leads to the second question which is for you, what has been the most impressive animal in terms of navigation?
DAVID: Yeah, the trouble is my head is just bulging with all these wonderful things. Let me answer it in two different ways. Here's an animal where we actually don't know for sure how it navigates. We can make some pretty shrewd guesses, but it is just astonishing what it does, and this is the bar-tailed godwit, which is a waiter, a bird that breeds in Alaska, and then flies across the whole Pacific, non-stop to New Zealand.
GAVIN: Wow, literally not stopping?
DAVID: Literally nonstop. And this was only discovered about 10 years ago when they first developed little tracking devices that they could attach to birds. It was a huge sensation as you can imagine, but now there's a lot of people who are working with these godwits and it's great. Actually you can follow it on Twitter and you can see their progress as they go along and it's breathtaking.
And these birds, they fatten themselves up. I think they increase their body weight by about a third, just to give themselves enough energy to be able to fly that distance. And then they're really clever because they wait until just the right weather front comes in, which is going to give them the wind to help them fly, and then they go for it and cover 11 or 12,000 kilometers in about a week.
When they arrive in New Zealand, of course, they’re absolutely exhausted, and they've lost all that extra weight and they're kind of staggering around. But the amazing thing is that they do this every year and then they go back again, although they take a different route when they go back. They go back through China.
ZITO: Yeah, I feel like trying to fly across the ocean again for a week is just too much.
DAVID: One way is enough. I think that is a wonder, I think that's amazing, though we don't know so much about how they do it. But then if you look at an animal that has been really carefully studied for about 50 years, and I wrote about this in Supernavigators ... there's an amazing German scientist called Rudiger Wehner who literally has spent his life with his colleagues working out how the desert ant of the Sahara desert in north Africa navigates.
It's a little ant, it's a bit bigger than the sort of ants we have here in England. It's not too big. And it lives in the most inhospitable, miserable environment. It's these salt paths that are flat and featureless and searingly hot. It's got a nest under the ground, and the entrance to the nest is just a little hole, big enough to let an ant in or out. And these ants, they come out, they zigzag around, they run very fast because it's so hot, and so they have to keep moving. They zigzag around, and eventually, if they're lucky, they find maybe a dead butterfly and they'll pick up the butterfly. And then the amazing thing is that they will go straight back to the tiny invisible hole in the desert.
So for about a hundred years, scientists have been wondering how they do that, and well, we now know. This to me is a wonder. Here is a creature with a little tiny brain, it's got about 400,000 neurons, whereas we have about 85 billion neurons. So he's got 400,000 neurons and look what it can do, it's got a compass sense. It can use the sun to steer a steady course, even allowing for the movement of the sun across the sky. It's what's called a time-compensated sun compass.
And Wehner and his friends have shown that that's based on the ant's ability to see the patterns of polarized light in the sky. So it's got a special part of its eye that picks up these polarization patterns. It can count its steps to work out how far it's gone.
GAVIN: Oh my God.
DAVID: Yeah! It can even make allowances for uneven ground. And so when it zigzags around, basically it's constantly tracking its position using the sun in the sky and using its odometer, counting its steps. So it knows exactly how far it's gone in what direction and at any given moment, it can always as it were, point back to where it started. So that's what we sailors call dead reckoning.
GAVIN: I was going to ask you about that. Yeah, can you define that real quick? Because dead reckoning is a big part of this.
DAVID: Dead reckoning is basically really important, a lot of animals rely on it, including human beings. And basically the idea is you keep track of the direction you're headed in and also how far you've gone. So with that information, you can work out where you are in relation to the place you started from. And even if you keep changing course, if you remember each course change, you can as it were, plot your position and that's called dead reckoning.
The amazing thing is that these ants and many other animals, too, can do this. The desert ant also has a magnetic compass sense, it can use the wind, it can use its sense of smell, and it's really good at remembering landmarks, so it can find its way using landmarks. Imagine that in a tiny little insect, it's astonishing.
GAVIN: When you say landmark, do you mean it might see like a pile of sand and it'll know that pile of sand from a different pile of sand?
DAVID: Yeah, exactly! Well, maybe there's a little scrubby bush. What the scientists have done is they've put artificial landmarks down and moved them around and seen how the ants react when they move the position of the landmarks. It's absolutely clear that they use the landmarks to work out where they are in relation to the nest entrance and they can follow a course.
OK, so you've got your bar-tailed godwit, which is a bird doing this amazing thing, we don't know quite how, and we've got this tiny little ant, and I could give you a lot of other examples. I'm constantly kind of awestruck by what our fellow creatures can do.
ZITO: It's so interesting because before you got on, we were talking about something that I was doing when I was in Venice. And I think Venice is a city that forces you to use your navigation skills.
DAVID: Oh boy, doesn’t it?
ZITO: I was describing it as like a labyrinth and the problem with a labyrinth is if you don't recognize landmarks and know exactly how many steps you've taken and what direction, you will get lost very easily. So when I was walking around Venice a lot, there were so many times where I would just stop, and then just like looking at two identical types of paths. I was just like “Huh, I feel like I came from this one,” and then I'll take a couple of steps, and I’m like, “No, doesn’t look that familiar,” and I had to turn the other way.
DAVID: I so agree, especially in the dark.
ZITO: You need to have an idea of like, "I'm walking to the store from this way, I have to come back the exact same way." I think one of the big obstacles, thinking about these animals and their navigation is just how different their world is from ours. Like you're talking about like an ant that can see polarized light and can track the movement of the sun. And to me, I understand the concept of it, but I feel like the way that I experience the world is so different from how an ant experiences the world. That is still incredibly strange, even if it's explained very well.
DAVID: Yeah, I totally agree. The polarized light thing, you can get some kind of an idea. If you put on polarizing sunglasses and twist your head around, you can see these patterns in the sky, but no, I agree.
And then you've got even weirder things like echolocation in bats and whales. Again, bats are staggering, because they can fly around in complete darkness, zigzagging around, and they can find their way through a tiny aperture in a net or something like that. They can capture insects on the wing, and this is all done by bouncing ultrasonic signals off stuff. It's just surreal.
And then one of the really weird, I won't say it's a discovery, because it hasn't really yet been totally pinned down, but it looks very much as if homing pigeons… If you take a homing pigeon away from its home loft, maybe 300 kilometers or so, to a place it's never ever been before, completely unfamiliar, and release it, it will very often be able to find its way home, which is just bizarre. I mean, how could that work? You can even make the pigeon unconscious and take it on a journey and release it, and it'll still work out where it is and how to get home.
And the theory that is now kind of getting traction that I think is really freaky is that they're using their sense of smell. You might think, oh OK, so they're smelling a wind or something coming from their home. It's not that. The theory is that when they're young, sitting in their home loft, the wind is blowing across the home loft from all the points of the compass, and each different wind direction will bring to the nose of the young bird a different bouquet of smells so that when the bird is released in an unfamiliar place, it will sniff the air. And it will say, “Ah, I recognize that bouquet, I used to pick up that smell when the wind was blowing from the northwest, so that must mean to get home, I'm going to have to fly southeast.”
ZITO: Before this, I actually brought up the pigeons because they were my first, or one of my entryways into animal navigation because they played a role in World War I because they were being used as messenger pigeons. And it's because of that sense of direction that you could take them anywhere and they could find their way home. And again, that's such a ridiculous thing, that it almost seems that you're talking about fantasy if you were writing this in the book of, "This pigeon finding its way because it smells the different winds."
DAVID: Yeah in fact, the Italian scientist who did the first experiment that suggested they were using their sense of smell, actually didn't believe it himself. He thought it was ridiculous! He then eventually did a whole series of experiments and sort of persuaded himself. You know, “Hey, it must be that.”
Though having said that, there's an American scientist who came up with a completely different theory, I mean they both could be true, they could both be using their sense of smell and what this guy says, is that maybe they're using infrasound, very low-frequency sound that we can't hear. And I think this is even stranger because the theory is that, and I hope I'm describing this right, but if you have a seismometer, you know, if you're listening for little tiny earthquake sounds, all the time, there are little tiny, what are called microseisms running through the earth. Very minor earthquake things which are caused by, amongst other things, storms in the open ocean.
And these will travel down the water column into the ocean floor, they will spread through the ocean floor until they get to the continental margin and then they'll pass through the continental rock. So that even if you're in the middle of a continent, you know, you might be in Omaha, Nebraska, or somewhere in the middle of Russia, even there, you can pick up these little things. And this guy's theory is that each location on the surface kind of rings like a bell in response to these little earthquake things, and therefore has its own characteristic infrasound signature.
Now infrasound carries huge distances, and it's known that pigeons can detect infrasound, and he thinks that maybe when you release a pigeon in an unfamiliar place, it listens for the characteristic notion of a bell or something. And it picks that up and goes, “Ah, home is that way.”
GAVIN: That is insane.
DAVID: It is insane, it’s very speculative and it's controversial. But there is some fascinating evidence in support of it that goes back to the time when the Concorde supersonic airliner was flying because there were a number of occasions back then when big, organized pigeon races ended in complete disaster, when the birds didn't get home at all. Apparently, that's called a race is being smashed. So these races were smashed and it turned out that the scientists discovered that very often, these smashed races coincided with the passage of the Concorde supersonic airline. His theory is that the shock waves from this big aircraft, whizzing at Mach 2 or whatever, could have really wrecked the infrasound equipment or the pigeons.
ZITO: That's not entirely too different from how big freights and oceans and the explosions of warships mess up the navigation of whales.
DAVID: Exactly, because it's very likely that infrasound is important in underwater navigation, though we aren't sure about that.
GAVIN: I have a quick question about percentage of the brain, David. One of the things when you're talking about the fire ant, or you're talking about pigeons, these are obviously creatures that all have much smaller brains than we do. Do they use a lot of their brain to do this, and is that driven by survival evolution, or do they have a lot more going on that we just don’t know about?
DAVID: It's a good question, I'm not sure I'm really well qualified to answer that. If you look at insect brains, insect brains are all pretty much alike and they contain two structures called the mushroom bodies and the central complex, which do take up quite a large part of the brain. And those are very important for navigation.
I think it's probably fair to say that insects do devote quite a lot of their little tiny brains to solving their navigational problems. Pigeons, probably quite a lot too, but then actually human beings quite a lot. Because one of the fascinating things that's come out of all the work the neuroscientists are doing on humans and on rats and mice and stuff is that it looks as if the bits of the brain that enable us to navigate physical space are also really important to help us navigate conceptual space.
Even to the point where — and again, this is a little bit speculative — but there is some evidence that our ability to imagine alternative futures to make plans, even to exercise our artistic creativity, those processes seem to depend quite heavily on the efficient functioning of the navigational circuits in our brains. I think what this points towards is the possibility that spatial navigation is kind of the tip of the iceberg here. The kind of neural circuitry that supports our ability to find our way around in space is actually doing a whole lot of other important stuff too. And that is probably true in other animals.
ZITO: I feel like you just put an end to the big philosophical conflict between the mind and the body.
GAVIN: Whoa! He just solved it!
ZITO: "Actually, that space for the body is reserved for the conceptual mind as well." And I was like, "Wow, that's a hundred years or hundreds of years of philosophical debate just gone in an instant."
DAVID: Oh I wish, but seriously, watch this space because I think that the neuroscientists are working really hard on all this stuff. First of all, I don't think it'll be very long before the guys who are working on insect brains are able to describe in pretty full detail exactly how they take a sensory input, like polarized light patterns, and turn it into a motor command, like "go left" or "go right." So tracing the whole neural pathway from the sensory input to the motor output, which is pretty major stuff. And eventually, we're a long way from doing that with more complicated mammalian brains, but I think it's coming. It's coming.
GAVIN: Yeah, one of the things that's been fascinating to me was that study from a couple of years ago about London cab drivers. Are you familiar with that?
DAVID: Oh yeah, sure.
GAVIN: Do you mind talking about that a little bit? Because it's a little bit of this crossover about animal navigation, human navigation. Which I think the interesting thing to me about this whole world is like, we're all amazed at the fact that animals can do this, but as humans, we also are doing things all the time, but we've just gotten kind of far away from it, like we were talking about before.
DAVID: Absolutely. The London taxi driver stuff, there've been a whole lot of studies, but the famous one involved looking at the brains of London cab drivers in magnetic resonance imaging machines and comparing them with the brains of London bus drivers. Now the point about this, London taxi drivers have to learn ... it's an incredibly difficult laborious process. They have to basically learn their way around all of the city of London and be able to answer very detailed questions about how to get from any point to any other point.
GAVIN: And just to be clear, London is a much more difficult city than, say, anywhere in America, because it was built hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
DAVID: Yeah, it's a nightmare, it's almost as bad as Venice. [laughter] So these guys literally spend two or three years going around London on motorbikes learning, and it's called "the knowledge." It is an extraordinary thing. Whereas a bus driver, of course, is also driving every day, spending the same amount of time behind the wheel, but the big difference is they're following the same route every time.
So the clever idea behind the experiment was to see whether the bus drivers' and the taxi drivers’ brains looked any different. It turned out, sure enough, that the part of the hippocampus deep in the brain, which is known to be an area that's very important, both in memory and in navigation, that part of the hippocampus in the taxi drivers, was a lot bigger and fatter than it was in the bus drivers,. But also interestingly, when the taxi drivers retired, that plump bit of the hippocampus got small again. So what this seemed to show, and I think does show, is that it's kind of use it or lose it. You exercise the relevant bit of your brain and it'll go ‘brooooop!’ And if you don't exercise, it'll go ‘broop.’
The slightly scary thing is that lots and lots of older people now are getting Alzheimer's disease, which is horrible, and one of the very first symptoms of Alzheimer's is disorientation. Very often, the first thing that seems to go is their ability to kind of find their way around, and guess what? The place that Alzheimer's seems to often attack first is the hippocampus. So, some scientists are saying well look, maybe we can actually help people kind of protect themselves against Alzheimer's by exercising their hippocampus, by doing lots of good navigation, keeping it nice and plump.
I’m not sure that's necessarily true. But I have spoken to some experts on Alzheimer's who said, look, even if it's not true that you can prevent Alzheimer's by exercising your navigational skills and building up your hippocampus, it's probably true that if you have a nice plump hippocampus, it will take longer for the damaging effects of Alzheimer's to be felt. It'll give you a bit of resilience. So I think the jury is out on some of this, but it's pretty clear that if you want to preserve the parts of your brain that are critical to your ability to navigate using your wits — rather than GPS or whatever — then you need to do that, and then that will give you the relevant bit of your brain, the hippocampus and the surrounding areas will be bigger and stronger, and that will be good for you.
ZITO: I wonder how we can work that into some fitness messaging of like exercise your body, exercise your hippocampus.
DAVID: Zito, I'm counting on you, you’ve got all your followers, you need to get it out there.
ZITO: "Exercise your hippocampus, it will save you down the line."
DAVID: You'll have to draw some pictures for them.
ZITO: Yeah, it's going to have to be an infographic of like a fat hippocampus.
DAVID: Absolutely. Fat is good.
GAVIN: I have a couple of just specific examples from the book I'd love to hear about. I'm really interested. I came across the work on the loggerhead turtles, and one of the things about that, which was interesting to me was just how many different types of navigation they use over the course of it. And I think this kind of gets to what I want to talk a little bit about is the idea of seeing these animals like oh my God, they're doing all this amazing stuff. But these are things that we mostly do and have either done before our lost and just kind of like what that feeling is. But first, tell me the story of the loggerhead turtles and kind of what they used to start.
DAVID: There’s an American scientist called Ken Loman down at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He has spent most of his life studying not just turtles, but a lot of it on turtles and loggerheads in particular. And what he's shown is that when the little tiny turtle hatchling emerges from its egg and scuttles down the beach to get in the sea, if it's lucky, he's managed to show how it navigates that part of its journey and how it navigates to get out through the surf into the deep water.
All of these are different systems. And then eventually these loggerheads turtle hatchlings will embark on a journey. If they're born on the Atlantic coast of Florida for example, they will go right around the whole of the North Atlantic. Right up around the coast of Europe and Africa, and then back to Florida, and this may take many years. And while they're doing that, it used to be believed that they just passively floated in the gulf stream and just got carried willy-nilly around. But it's very clear that that is not the case. They wouldn't make it if they just drifted.
So it turns out that these little hatchlings have a magnetic sense. They're tuned into the Earth's magnetic field and they can somehow tell roughly where they are on this long circular journey around the whole ocean basin. And they can swim, actively, to make sure that they stay in the currents that are going to be most favorable to them and will help them get back home. It's not enough just to let the currents carry them, they've got to make sure they stay in the current, and this is what their magnetic sense seems to enable them to do.
And then eventually, when they've come back to where they originated and they start to breed, the females find their way back to the beach where they were born, or very close to it, usually. And again, that seems to be because they imprint on the, if you like, the magnetic signature of that bit of beach, and they can find their way back to it by detecting the exact magnetic parameters that define the position of that beach. And it's not totally accurate, we're not talking about getting back to within a few meters of where they started, but certainly a lot of the time it'll be within a mile or two. Which, after a journey of 10,000 miles and many years 'round an entire ocean is pretty impressive.
ZITO: Yeah, I think we can give them that space of like a mile or two. A nice margin of error, like, you’re fine.
DAVID: Yeah, I think we can give them a little bit of applause. Ken Loman, whom I interviewed for the book, would be the first to admit we don't know the whole story because it's probable that there are other senses involved. Maybe they use their sense of smell, maybe they're listening again, it could be infrasound, that could be a factor. There's a lot more we don't know.
I'm a sailor and one of the things that really fascinates me is the way some of the big marine creatures like whales navigate. So if you take humpback whales, for example, you've got a population that lives partly in the waters around Antarctica and they go down there to feed on all the krill and they get nice and fat. And then they migrate to their breeding grounds, which are right up around the equator, in the middle of the Pacific or the middle of the Atlantic.
And by attaching tracking devices to them, it's been shown that when they make these journeys of thousands of miles across the open ocean, they go really straight. They're not messing about, they're not sort of rambling, they go straight and they go straight for particular island groups, where they turn up every year, like around Samoa or Fiji or wherever. And it's a really interesting question, how are they doing that?
For us, navigating the open ocean ... When celestial navigation was finally perfected in the 18th century, with the help of Sextants and barometers and what have you, we could do it then, but it's even easier now with GPS. But for most of the history of humanity, sailors, once they were out of sight of land, were pretty quickly not very sure where they were, and certainly couldn't have done what these whales are doing. So what are they doing? We just don't know, and I just think it's awesome.
And they're not the only ones, you've got great white sharks. They tracked a great white shark all the way from the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa, right across the Indian Ocean to the west coast to Australia in more or less a straight line, at which point it turned around and went all the way back again, in a straight line. It's a great white shark, how's it doing that? That's thousands of miles of open ocean. A bluefin tuna, elephant seals, they're all doing this kind of stuff, and we don't know how. I love it. The mystery is almost the best part of it, I think.
GAVIN: Totally. Well we do have to wrap up relatively soon, Zito is there anything else you want to ask before we go?
ZITO: No, I feel like that idea of how they are doing this, we just don't know.
GAVIN: It's a pretty good example, right?
ZITO: Just a perfect summation of everything. There's a lot of wild navigation happening and we have a lot of theories, but like, who knows, they could just be doing whatever they want.
DAVID: Absolutely. The great thing is I think the thing I find is it's kind of humbling.
ZITO: Yeah, it's very humbling.
DAVID: We think we’re so damn clever, we think we're the Lords of creation, we think we've got it all, but we really don't. There are lots and lots of animals, even little animals like those ants that could do stuff we can't do without the help of instruments. And that, I just think is awesome.
GAVIN: I think actually one of the things I'm fascinated by, and this is what I was trying to get at in my earlier thing. One of the great things about learning more about animals is that instead of anthropomorphizing them and making them like human life, we can really appreciate them for these different things than us.
And I know this is something I've struggled with a little bit, and this may be personal, but I've thought about meat eating or eating animals for a long time. And when you learn things about this like animals and you're like wow, these are incredible creatures and all this other stuff, it makes you think a little bit more about that aspect of the human relationship to animals. I mean, we are the dominant species on the planet and clearly we've left a lot of destruction in our wake, but it starts to open up your thought process on, there are a lot of things that we really don't know. From even animal navigation, but then communication, and again, going back to their brains, all those standpoints, there's just so much that we don't know about them.
DAVID: Yeah, absolutely. And frankly, we have to take some pretty urgent steps to fix things, otherwise we're going to be frying. I think part of the problem that we've got is that there are a lot of people who are still skeptical about climate change and loss of biodiversity and all these great problems. And part of the reason that they're skeptical is because they just haven't got it, we're not that special.
You know, we're part of this huge, intricate, wonderful web of creation, and I don't mean creation like a creationist, but we're part of this extraordinarily complex, intricate, interconnected web of beings. And we just can't continue to behave as if the rest of nature doesn't really matter, or only exists to serve our purposes. Because if we do, we're going to kill ourselves off, but we’re also going to make a hell of a mess of everything else. And I think that has to be from my perspective, one of the great sort of ethical challenges now is how we respond to that and how we translate whatever conclusions we reach into practical politics. Well, that's a whole other subject of course.
GAVIN: Can’t get too far down that way. Well great, thank you so much. Oh before we go David, I always try to ask our guests if there's something outside of your natural world, especially outside of animal navigation, that you're super interested in right now? Is there something that you're kind of semi-obsessed with outside of your normal life?
DAVID: Well, something I'm actually working on at the moment is to do with, and this is a bit of a downer, but it's so important and interesting. I'm doing a lot of research on the history of the slave trade, and how that worked and what was going on. I don't know whether it'll turn into a book or anything, and it's certainly very different from other stuff that I've done.
But curiously enough, I came into it because of navigation. I started reading about… There was a kind of weird, crazy British Naval officer who in the 1820s, more or less mapped the whole coast of Africa. And while he was doing it, he was really outraged to discover what was going on with the slave trade, particularly in East Africa actually, and he got heavily involved in efforts to stop it. But I started reading more and more and discovering what a big, complex, terrifying, and unfortunately, still horribly relevant subject it is.
ZITO: I actually might have a wonderful resource for you in one of the people that I follow. He's a historian, Liam Hogan.
DAVID: I don’t know him!
ZITO: He has the best, I guess the brain when it comes to the transatlantic slave trade, he just knows every single thing. It's like, almost every day he'll list something else about like the transatlantic slave trade, and I’m like, I did not know that.
DAVID: So Liam Hogan?
ZITO: Yeah, he's actually Irish. It first started for him like trying to dispel that Irish myth that's always used by white supremacists like Irish people were slaves as well. Until like this long thing that now he does, like as a historian about the slave trade. He has all these wonderful resources about like the routes and the different ways that it's transformed. He's incredible.
DAVID: Well listen, if I can't track him down, maybe I could direct message you Zito.
ZITO: Yeah, message me and I will send you his Twitter or his email.
DAVID: Because I’m going to be a follower now.
GAVIN: Yeah, the magic of the internet. Get ready for a lot of poetry from Zito, he's really good at it.
DAVID: Yeah, I saw you quoting Derrida on forgiveness. Really interesting, I'd never seen that before, but fascinating.
GAVIN: Like I've said at the beginning of the show, he's one of my favorite Twitter followers I've ever followed. Okay, we gotta wrap up here, but I want to say thanks again to Zito for coming on and your great topic of animal navigation, which I learned a lot about. Again, to David for coming on and please go get David's book, it's called Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonder of How Animals Find Their Way. And thanks to both of you for being here, we appreciate it.
DAVID: Thank you, it's been terrific. Such good questions and great to meet you both.
GAVIN: All right. That was fascinating. That guy, man, he's got a lot of interesting stories, just kind of stuck in his brain. I'm always shocked by people who could remember that much stuff because my brain just does not do that.
But anyway, thank you to David Barrie, to Zito for coming on, thank you to the Gregory Brothers for my theme song. Thank you to Eric Johnson, who does some help behind the scenes at the podcast and thank you to you most for listening.
I've said many times, this is kind of a labor of love, something I'm doing as a test and I've been really enjoying it, but I would love to hear more about your thoughts on it. I would love to hear if you have ideas for guests, if you have ideas for anything else. You can shout out to me on my Twitter handle @GavinPurcell, please tell people about the podcast and then also rate the podcast on iTunes.
I'm hoping this is the beginning of something interesting for me because it's been super fun and I hope you come back next time. Thanks a lot! Bye bye.