An 'internal GPS' helps seabirds find home

September 27, 2017

A newly created animal movement model reveals that seabirds orient themselves when over an ocean and compensate for wind drift even when landmarks are absent, to eventually move toward their desired direction. The results may pave the way to a new era of analyzing animal decision-making. While previous work has attempted to understand animal navigational choices, methods employed by researchers to date are technically demanding and have demonstrated limited application (requiring long-term recordings of animal body orientation, for example). In search of a better technique, Yusuke Goto and colleagues studied large GPS tracking data sets of homing seabird movement, using animal tracks to quantify navigational decisions and environmental disturbances (such as wind). The authors recorded one location per minute of homing tracks in 33 streaked shearwaters (Calonectris leucomelas), a species of seabird, to examine their responses to wind while the birds were flying across an open ocean for an extended period of time. Interestingly, Goto et al. found that the birds correctly evaluated and compensated for wind drift, which resulted in ideal navigation - a finding that hints shearwaters possess a "map sense," or ability to know their location on earth in addition to the distance and direction to their destination. The researchers note that their model is unique in that it requires only GPS tracking data, which is beneficial because it is the most commonly used animal tracking measurement. The authors say this model can also be applied to investigating the navigational decision-making of swimming animals.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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