Foraging desert ants can keep track of their nest while travelling tens of meters. The wandering albatross can fly thousands of kilometres over the ocean before returning to its nest. Some seals are even capable of finding their way back to the exact spot where they were born even after spending five years out at sea.
Without wayfinding, most of us would be lucky to find our way around a shopping centre, let alone travel thousands of kilometres without getting lost.
Finding our way from place to place is essential to everyday human functioning, but for animals their survival depends on it. Animals must migrate in search of food, water and shelter due to seasonal changes, to escape overcrowding or even to give birth. With the convenience of food readily available, we will not be migrating to a warmer place in search of food this Winter, although residing in Victoria, heading somewhere sunny over the next few months doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Animals must travel long distances, crossing featureless environments, without the aid of maps, signs, or even paths or roads. While we rely on wayfinding to guide our everyday journeys, animals use natural navigational skills to find their way.
Animals navigate through remarkable mechanisms including sun, astral and magnetic compasses. Some animals like birds and ants can use the position of the sun or stars to determine direction. This requires both a natural ability to read patterns of stars or track a moving sun, and an accurate internal clock. Animals may also be sensitive to the polarisation of light coming from the sun and can use this to indicate direction. Other animals such as bats and sea turtles use magnetic information that is usually undetectable to humans who aren’t holding a compass (or know how to work one) to find their way or to orient themselves.
Some animals, such as pigeons, use their sense of smell to build and remember a mental map of odours in their area and recognise where they are by the intensities of the odours. Fish can use smell to return to the exact river where they hatched or to tell the difference between the water of different rivers. Animals also use landmarks in their environment, such as mountains, trees or the ocean to assist their journeys. Whales traveling in the Pacific Ocean navigate themselves using the entire continent of North America as their landmark, keeping it to their left on the way south, and to their right when they head north.
Today it’s hard to imagine going anywhere without the assistance of wayfinding, but like animals, early explorers had to rely on their natural navigational skills to discover uncharted lands. Phoenician explorers sailing the Mediterranean didn’t have maps or GPS systems to navigate their ships. They sailed along the coast of Europe and Africa using the continents as landmarks. When venturing further out to sea with land no longer in sight, they observed the positions of The Phoenician Star, now known as Polaris, to guide their journeys.
Most of us no longer rely on our natural abilities to navigate and some of us (myself included) probably feel we lack any navigational skills at all. If we venture out into unfamiliar territory, we depend on wayshowing tools to direct us from point a to b. Unlike animals, we won’t be relying on a natural ability to read stars in the night sky, detect light or magnetic information and we probably won’t be relying on our sense of smell to guide us.
Imagine trying to find our way around unfamiliar destinations such as airports and hospitals, or navigate a path or road without any signs, maps or graphics. Wayfinding plays an important role in how we navigate and experience spaces. It is essential to our daily functioning and without it most of us would struggle to find our way around. So even if we don’t have to travel thousands of kilometres for our next meal, at least we can rely on wayfinding tools to navigate us through our everyday journeys.