My friends, I have a condition. I suppose the commonly used term for it is “directionally challenged.” When I go back east to visit my family, my husband has to navigate even if we are driving in an area where I grew up, because his ability to remember where we are is so far superior to mine, even though he’d never been to the area before we met. When I go to a shopping mall or a medical complex, the only way I can find my car is to carefully memorize landmarks, i.e.: Turn left at Bath & BodyWorks, then there is a pedestrian door next to the soda machine. Go down escalator to P2, walk past parking office, and turn right 3 rows down. In a strange building, when I get off an elevator, I turn the wrong way. Every time.
People with even minimal directional sense have no idea how lucky they are to not have to worry about getting lost in a restaurant because they turned left instead of right when exiting the bathroom. So imagine my dismay at learning that slime molds are more successful at finding their way than I am, and that they follow pretty much the same strategy as I do in parking garages. Author David Barrie (no relation to humorist Dave Barry, but great-great-nephew to playwright J.M. Barrie) writes, “These simple organisms can slowly but surely ooze their way toward a supply of glucose hidden at the bottom of a U-shaped trap. To do so, they employ a simple kind of memory that enables them to avoid revisiting places they have already explored.” In writing this review, I searched online for info about slime molds and I found videos of them solving mazes, which most people will find fascinating, but I interpreted as a personal insult.
Incidentally, a note under the video indicates that the mold was more efficient at finding the fastest route than a graduate student. . .so solidarity, I guess?
Not only are slime molds good at finding their way, they are able to design an efficient railway network. In one study, researchers distributed oat flakes (yummy slime mold treats) in patterns that mimicked the layout of cities around Tokyo and then let the slime molds loose. The slime molds built networks to distribute the nutrients that eventually. . . wait for it. . . looked strikingly similar to Tokyo’s actual rail system.
The entire Japanese engineering corp was later fired and replaced by a collection of fungal spores.
This is all fascinating, so maybe the reason I didn’t enjoy Supernavigators as much as I expected is because I’m bitter. More likely, though, it’s because the book is more a collection of interesting facts than a deep dive into animal navigation. When I read, I tag passages that I find interesting so I can reference them in my review, and I tagged quite a few interesting tidbits. Some examples:
- Fish have what’s called a lateral line organ, which is a collection of pressure-sensitive pores that help them detect movement and change direction in unison. (Think of a school of fish that turn with the synchronization of a well-rehearsed dance troupe. They are able to do that because of that lateral line organ.)
- Dung beetles are able to roll their balls of dung in a straight line, even though they are pushing backwards, which is incredibly hard to do. For comparison, humans who are blindfolded and don’t have any additional sensory clues (such as sound) typically can’t walk a straight line for more than 8 seconds.
- While some migratory birds learn travel routes from adults, cuckoos don’t have that advantage, because they are parasite nesters and are born in a nest not “owned” by their parent. One theory is that cuckoos have an internal “clock and compass” system that helps them reach the right area. What’s so remarkable, though, is that in a recent study of cuckoos, they followed such a narrow corridor that the average distance between individual birds was about 100 miles.
These are all interesting facts, but somehow the overall narrative of the book didn’t engage me as much as I hoped. Perhaps the subject is too broad and Barrie might have narrowed down to a few prime examples rather than tackling the entirety of animal navigation in 300 pages. Still, as I said, there are interesting nuggets, and I was especially happy to discover that there is a name for my condition: Developmental Topographical Disorientation (DTD). DTD sufferers, the majority of whom are women (as self-identified through an online survey), are worse than controls “. . . at tasks involving orientation, landmark recognition, and retracing their steps, though they were just as good at face and object recognition. It is not yet clear . . . whether women really are more prone to it than men; perhaps they are simply more willing to admit to having a problem.”
I don’t need to stop for directions!