Birds and bees and turtles know where they’re going a lot better than we do.
The average human brain has 100 billion neuron cells and boasts another 100 trillion synapses. Now, that’s an amazing amount of memory and computation power all jammed into a three-pound human organ.
By contrast, bee brains are small, or should I say more compact, containing only 1 million neuron cells (a fruit fly is even more compact with 250,000 neurons).
But, with brains the size of pinheads, bees are really smart. While they seem to wander leisurely from flower to flower, foraging for pollen, bees are actually solving complex mathematical problems that take computers days to compute.
Researchers have recently discovered that in their meandering, bees calculate the shortest possible route between the flowers they randomly discover.
One scientist heralded the importance of this bee brain discovery: “Our lifestyle relies on networks such as traffic on the roads, information flow on the Web and business supply chains. By understanding how bees can solve their problems with such a tiny brain, we can improve our management of these everyday networks without needing lots of computer time.”
Beside gazing in awe at the miracles of our natural world, mankind has a lot to learn from Mother Nature. Take loggerhead turtles and monarch butterflies, two other examples of the power of natural wonders.
I have always marveled at the power and precision of GPS systems that deliver real-time maps and precise directions to our smart phones and iPads.
I’m particularly amazed that the satellite maps include unpaved back roads, suburban cul-de-sacs and city alleyways. We consider all this brilliant technology the product of limitless human ingenuity and innovation. We think that mankind’s intellect is the root of all the genius advances in our world.
But, Mother Nature has been way ahead of us. Many species of animals have been using sophisticated navigation systems for several millennia. With GPS technology, we humans are simply the new kids on the block playing catch up.
Many creatures find their way around accurately without satellites, radar, maps, or other inertial navigation instruments. Birds such as the Arctic tern, insects such as the monarch butterfly, and fish such as the salmon regularly migrate thousands of miles to and from their breeding grounds, and many other species navigate effectively over shorter distances without the benefit of GPS.
Sea turtles routinely migrate thousands of miles and then return to the exact same spot on the same beach to lay their eggs. In 2008, scientists tracked a leatherback turtle migration that was a record 12,744-mile voyage.
Loggerhead turtles follow a similar pattern. Upon leaving their nest, loggerhead hatchlings will scramble to the ocean and begin an epic 8,000-mile solo journey around the North Atlantic basin. Young loggerheads that survive this incredible migration will return to the same beach in about six to 12 years to lay their eggs and repeat the cycle of life.
How do they do that precision navigation without a GPS? Many scientist believe the turtles detect both the angle and intensity of the earth’s magnetic field. Using these two characteristics, a sea turtle is able to determine its latitude and longitude, enabling it to navigate virtually anywhere and plot a direct return to the nesting grounds. With precise coordinates like that, who needs GPS? Loggerheads clearly don’t.
The annual migration of the monarch butterfly is equally impressive. In the fall, millions of monarchs from all along the northeastern corridor of the U.S. and parts of southern Canada migrate 2-3,000 miles to the Michoacán mountain range in central Mexico where they crowd together so densely that the air is filled with butterflies.
Scientists say that monarchs use a light-dependent, inclination magnetic compass to help them orient southward to the same destination during each migration. They have found that monarchs have a keen sense of direction even on cloudy days due to a magnetic compass that directs their migration in addition to navigating by the position of the sun. That’s the human equivalent of having a sextant with a magnetic compass backup, all packed into the antennae of those magnificent little butterflies.
Honeybees boast one of the most sophisticated navigation and communication system in all of nature. When they find a source of nectar for their hive, they lock in the location and directions with remarkable accuracy. Polarized light detectable even through the cloudiest sky imprints a message on certain neurons in the bees’ tiny brains, activating a gene to map the sky and the location of the nectar source.
Then, to communicate that info to other bees from the hive, they convert that information into instructions for other bees by waggling their body to signal the direction of the honey source. So, the bees not only have a built-in GPS capability but can also send directions to other bees by the human equivalent of a PDF attachment to an e-mail. What an efficient system for foraging!
These remarkable examples are but the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to Mother Nature’s navigation systems. So whenever we humans get smug and self-satisfied with our mastery of modern technology and all it portends, maybe we should take a moment to consider the innumerable wonders of the world around us. Mother Nature has been leading the way since the very beginning.