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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Nature   [before 13 March 1873]1

Perception in the Lower Animals

As several persons seem interested in Mr. Wallace’s suggestion that animals find their way home by recognising the odour of the places which they have passed whilst shut up, you may perhaps think the following little fact worth giving.2 Many years ago I was on a mail-coach, and as soon as we came to a public-house, the coachman pulled up for the fraction of a second. He did so when we came to a second public-house, and I then asked him the reason. He pointed to the off-hand wheeler, and said that she had been long completely blind, and she would stop at every place on the road at which she had before stopped. He had found by experience that less time was wasted by pulling up his team than by trying to drive her past the place, for she was contented with a momentary stop. After this I watched her, and it was evident that she knew exactly, before the coachman began to pull up the other horses, every public-house on the road, for she had at some time stopped at all. I think there can be little doubt that this mare recognised all these houses by her sense of smell. With respect to cats, so many cases have been recorded of their returning from a considerable distance to their homes, after having been carried away shut up in baskets, that I can hardly disbelieve them, though these stories are disbelieved by some persons. Now, as far as I have observed, cats do not possess a very acute sense of smell, and they seem to discover their prey by eyesight and by hearing. This leads me to mention another trifling fact: I sent a riding-horse by railway from Kent viâ Yarmouth, to Freshwater Bay, in the Isle of Wight.3 On the first day that I rode eastward, my horse, when I turned to go home, was very unwilling to return towards his stable, and he several times turned round. This led me to make repeated trials, and every time that I slackened the reins, he turned sharply round and began to trot to the eastward by a little north, which was nearly in the direction of his home in Kent. I had ridden this horse daily for several years, and he had never before behaved in this manner. My impression was that he somehow knew the direction whence he had been brought. I should state that the last stage from Yarmouth to Freshwater is almost due south, and along this road he had been ridden by my groom; but he never once showed any wish to return in this direction. I had purchased this horse several years before from a gentleman in my own neighbourhood, who had possessed him for a considerable time. Nevertheless it is possible, though far from probable, that the horse may have been born in the Isle of Wight. Even if we grant to animals a sense of the points of the compass, of which there is no evidence, how can we account, for instance, for the turtles which formerly congregated in multitudes, only at one season of the year, on the shores of the Isle of Ascension, finding their way to that speck of land in the midst of the great Atlantic Ocean?4

Charles Darwin


The date is established by the date of publication of this letter in Nature.
In a letter in Nature, 20 February 1873, p. 303, Alfred Russel Wallace suggested that the homing ability displayed by some animals was probably due to their sense of smell than to instinct. The letter inspired a number of responses in the next two issues (Nature, 20 March 1873, pp. 322–3, 27 March 1873, p. 340). See also letter from Arthur Nicols, 21 February 1873.
The Darwins stayed at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight from 17 July to 20 August 1868 (Correspondence vol. 16, Appendix II).
Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) regularly migrate from Brazil to their nesting grounds on Ascension Island, 1400 miles away in the Atlantic.


Recounts instances suggesting that animals have a sense of direction.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Nature, 13 March 1873, p. 360

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8809,” accessed on 25 June 2018,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21