By Amanda Burtt, coeditor of Dogs: Archaeology Beyond Domestication.
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As an archaeologist, I am used to spending my work life in a laboratory setting and then venturing out in the warmer months for field work. However, due to the pandemic, field work for this season has been cancelled. In the past I complained about not having enough time to write. This is no longer the case. The prevailing social theme of boredom or the need to seek out entertainment has not been a constant in my daily life where I spend a lot of time writing, reading, and thinking about my research. I feel lucky in that way, I have data sets that need to be written up!
My dissertation research is focused on the dietary behavior of domestic dogs in pre-contact North America, see my (and Larisa DeSantis) chapter (5) in Dogs: Archaeology Beyond Domestication. Dietary behavior is an important component for any living creature. For humans, diet and associated culinary practices can be expressions of culture and a productive subject for anthropologists. My research questions center on whether dog feeding practices are also culturally influenced and inferable via dental microwear texture analysis. In other words, I study microscopic surfaces on dog’s teeth from archaeological sites to reconstruct their diets and evaluate patterns of dog feeding practiced by Indigenous North Americans. In order to understand dietary behaviors of canids without human interventions, I also study dental microwear and observed dietary behaviors of gray wolves (the progenitor of the domestic dog). These are the data sets I am currently writing about.
So, my pandemic normal includes writing up dental microwear data from wolves and reading, and more reading about wolf behavior. Since I have the time, I have not skimped on any aspect of canid behavior. My literature explorations on the subject have led me into unexpected territories. Recently I stumbled upon an article, Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field (Hart et al. 2013). This paper presents data supporting a theory that dogs prefer to urinate and/or defecate while aligning their body (their long axis – nose to tail) along earth’s North-South magnetic fields. As someone who studies dog behavior and has owned several dogs, this was curious. I have stood beside a dog ‘doing business’ more times that I can quantify in the past nor imagine (if I am lucky) in the future. I never envisioned my dog’s pre-business rituals were functions of magneto-sensations. This was an intriguing theory and ignited my hypothesis testing mind set. Though the original data was collected on free-roaming untethered dogs, it had me wondering; does my dog, while leashed, also align herself to an (any) axis? Considering I have all the things one would need to test such a theory: a compass, a dog that loves walks, a bit of extra time on my hands, and a yearning for ‘field work,’ I decided to begin a small project to test the concept with my own dog.
Walking around my neighborhood with a compass holstered on my hip, a camera around my neck, and a bit of commotion (level compass and snap pic of compass direction and dog’s long axis) whenever my dog stops to relieve herself has been an interesting break in my routine. It has also been the catalyst to many conversations (from safe distances) with my neighbors. My data collection so far shows weak correlations with the North-South axis and orientation of my dog’s long axis while business making. Observed behavior suggests she orients herself on the grass parallel with the sidewalk. Since we live in a town where streets are gridded on cardinal directions, there is directional bias. There are numerous other factors that could affect a tethered animal’s choice of direction while relieving themselves in urban areas: fence lines, hydrants, etc. The results of my research(ish) imply tethered canine companions do not show statistically significant preferences for the North-South axis nor perpendicular counterparts when relieving themselves.
Documenting the direction of Lila’s long axis while she uses the bathroom.
These results will not be submitted for peer-review nor will they make it into my dissertation. This project has instead been an exercise in testing a theory with principles from the scientific method. An exercise I can use when I teach or encourage students whom I work with at Indiana University to ask and investigate questions about behavior, both past and present, both human and not. I hope people I have talked with or reading now enjoy this distracting thought during these stressful times. And that I planted seeds of curiosity among my fellow quarantined peoples about dogs, magnetic fields, and how they could be connected. An interesting reason to find a compass, research the magnetic declination at your given location, and take a long walk with a dog. This will at least be an interesting story to tell our friends when we see each other again!
Amanda Burtt analyzing dental textures in – The DeSantis DREAM (Dietary Reconstructions and Ecological Assessments of Mammals) laboratory.
Amanda Burtt is associate curator with the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology at Indiana University, Bloomington.