What Animals See in the Stars, and What They Stand to Lose

Nick, a harbor sealing, made its way into the history of astronomy when Guido Dehnhardt (a marine biologist at the University of Rostock) was looking at how marine mammals navigate. Bjrn Mauck, Dr. Dehnhardt's colleague, and Dr. Dehnhardt hypothesized that seals might be able to see stars. This could explain why the animals can swim long distances in otherwise flat seas.Dr. Mauck created two wonder-filled experiments to test the astronomical abilities of seals.The team first constructed a seal-oscope, a tube without a lens. Nick was then given a tour through the night sky. When bright points such as Venus, Sirius, and Polaris appeared, he pressed his paddle. Although he couldn't see as many faint stars like humans, the researchers found that a lot of celestial landmarks still existed.Dr. Mauck next built something even larger. Two seals were invited to participate this time, Nick and Malte, his smarter brother.The seals were ushered into a pool at a Cologne Zoo and entered a dome 15 feet in diameter, with its rim resting upon a floating ring. This aqua-planetarium was lit up with 6,000 stars. They immediately began swimming around the planetarium, looking at stars and saying, "Oh, what's that?" Dr. Dehnhardt explained. It was clear that they were able to recognize what this was.The researchers first used a laser pointer with which to direct seals to the area where the dome's rim met the water closest to Sirius, or the Dog Star. A seal that touched the dome's rim with its nose would receive fish if it swam over. The pointer was then directed directly at Sirius. The seals were instructed to swim towards the star and touch directly below the pointer.The laser pointer was then removed by the researchers. Both seals were able to swim in the direction Sirius regardless of the orientation of the star-projector. The researchers concluded that seals can use lodestars as a guide in open sea travels.