Navigation by extrapolation of geomagnetic cues in a migratory songbird

Authors: Dmitry Kishkinev, Florian Packmor, Thomas Zechmeister, Hans-Christoph Winkler, Nikita Chernetsov, Henrik Mouritsen, and Richard A. Holland

Year: 2021

Publication: Current Biology

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Abstract: Displacement experiments have demonstrated that experienced migratory birds translocated thousands of kilometers away from their migratory corridor can orient toward and ultimately reach their intended destinations. This implies that they are capable of ‘‘true navigation,’’ commonly defined as the ability to return to a known destination after displacement to an unknown location without relying on familiar surroundings, cues that emanate from the destination, or information collected during the outward journey.5–13 In birds, true navigation
appears to require previous migratory experience. It is generally assumed that, to correct for displacements outside the familiar area, birds initially gather information within their year-round distribution range, learn predictable spatial gradients of environmental cues within it, and extrapolate from those to unfamiliar magnitudes—the gradient hypothesis. However, the nature of the cues and evidence for actual extrapolation remain elusive. Geomagnetic cues (inclination, declination, and total intensity) provide predictable spatial gradients across large parts of the
globe and could serve for navigation. We tested the orientation of long-distance migrants, Eurasian reed warblers, exposing them to geomagnetic cues of unfamiliar magnitude encountered beyond their natural distribution range. The birds demonstrated re-orientation toward their migratory corridor as if they were translocated to the corresponding location but only when all naturally occurring magnetic cues were presented,
not when declination was changed alone. This result represents direct evidence for migratory birds’ ability to navigate using geomagnetic cues extrapolated beyond their previous experience.

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