The Compass in My Nose

The ONE thing I was really good at I’m not good at now — that was hiking for miles and miles and miles and hours and hours over semi-rough terrain with dogs and looking at nature. I’m a very good tracker and have a superior sense of direction. I’ve read this is because humans have metal — a bit of magnetite — in their nose; some more than others. That was it. In all other things, I’m second best (at best)…

Some years ago scientists at CALTECH (California Institute of Technology in Pasadena) discovered that humans possess a tiny, shiny crystal of magnetite in the ethmoid bone, located between your eyes, just behind the nose.


Magnetite is a magnetic mineral also possessed by homing pigeons, migratory salmon, dolphins, honeybees, and bats. Indeed, some bacteria even contain strands of magnetite that function, according to Dr Charles Walcott of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, “as tiny compass needles, allowing them [the bacteria] to orient themselves in the earth’s magnetic field and swim down to their happy home in the mud”.

It seems that magnetite helps direction finding in animals and helps migratory species migrate successfully by allowing them to draw upon the earth’s magnetic fields. But scientists are not sure how they do this.

In any case, when it comes to humans, according to some experts, magnetite makes the ethmoid bone sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field and helps your sense of direction.

Some, such as Dr Dennis J Walmsley and W Epps from the Department of Human Geography of the Australian National University in Canberra writing in Perceptual and Motor Skills as far back as in 1987, have even suggested that this “compass” was helpful in human evolution as it made migration and hunting easier.

Following this fascinating factoid, science journalist Marc McCutcheon entitled a book The Compass in Your Nose and Other Astonishing Facts.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney.

Since I was a kid, I’ve liked seeing if I could get lost. I lived near a large deciduous forest in Nebraska, so I had a lot of chances to test it. Since I read the Boy Scout Handbook for fun and entertainment, and was in love with Lawrence of Arabia, I also knew that it was a good idea to observe the surrounding world for landmarks, ideally things that were out of place. It was also important to orient one’s position with the sun — which, I learned, even on a cloudy day is somewhat possible. I never used a compass. Sometimes I used a map but more often I forgot it.

The first time I was able to demonstrate this was when I was in 6th grade and my science class went for a field trip to Fontanelle Forest in Omaha. The boys and girls split up, each led by a teacher, and we were going to observe the forest. We took a trail straight through the woods to the river which was lined by a railroad track. For me — already Natty Bumpo — it was a pretty lame experience, but it was nice not to be in the classroom. As I walked along the tracks with my friend, I noticed a dead and bloated raccoon. He was roughly 20 yards beyond the turning. Not long after, we turned into the woods where things got interesting. One of my classmates had an asthma attack.

My teacher was an idiot. All she could do was panic. “Oh! Oh! Oh! We need Colonel Smithson!” (the other science teacher).

“I’ll go find him,” I said.

After a little bit of persuasion, the teacher decided I could take Kathy Keough and we would go find Colonel Smithson. Kathy was not a lot of help because she didn’t k now woods and thought I was weird. Halfway into our journey she stopped to pray. After that, we carried on. I returned us to the tracks. We walked up the tracks, I saw the raccoon, said, “Our trail is in a few yards.”

“How do YOU know?”

I did not dignify her question with a response other than, “Wait and see.”

Soon we met our trail, turned left onto it, and not long afterward met Colonel Smithson and the boys. They were not dumb enough to start wandering through the forest; they stayed on the trail.

“Cathy’s had an asthma attack and Mrs. Trumbull needs you.”

“Where are they?”

“Ask Ann (the name I went by for two years because there was another Martha in the class),” said Kathy who was now extremely impressed.

“I’ll take you to them. I hope they haven’t moved, but if they have, we’ll find them.” I led them back to the group of girls. Col. Smithson (I don’t honestly know what he was supposed to do with an asthma attack girl unless he had a nebulizer) helped Cathy and we left the forest.

No one said, “Thanks, Ann. Good tracking.”

And when I got home, no one was very interested in my story. My mom was worried about ticks. That was strange because I was in the forest every free chance I had, honing my tracking skills, and she never said anything about ticks.

So…today I’m off to the orthopedic surgeon to see what — if anything — can be done with/to my knee so I can get back on the trails again with this immense white dog on whom ticks should be easy to find.

11 thoughts on “The Compass in My Nose

  1. Well done. Shame you are not Swiss, you would be an ideal member of the MFD Militärischer Frauendienst. They do all sorts of tracing like that, and you would be a perfect addition. They even have pistols (no rifles because they are women).

    • I am Swiss! It’s just a technicality that was several generations ago that anyone in my family lived in Switzerland, but maybe I still have distant relations in the town of Affoltern am Albis!

  2. Enjoyed reading about the metal in my nose. If I ever come back as a salmon, I’ll be the leader up the stream. The title was a puzzle. Clarinets? The bit of research was interesting.

  3. OK, may God smite me, but the people who stop to pray in any given situation….gotta love ’em. I must have missed the metal hand out. I had to call me kids once to come get me at the mall cause I could not find my car. No joke. They laughed at that one. Yes, I was younger but damn if I could find that car. I must say it was at the height of Christmas shopping so the parking lot was a zoo. Good luck with the ortho.

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