The bird GPS - long-range navigation in migrants

Kasper Thorup, Richard A Holland
Journal of Experimental Biology 2009, 212: 3597-604
Nowadays few people consider finding their way in unfamiliar areas a problem as a GPS (Global Positioning System) combined with some simple map software can easily tell you how to get from A to B. Although this opportunity has only become available during the last decade, recent experiments show that long-distance migrating animals had already solved this problem. Even after displacement over thousands of kilometres to previously unknown areas, experienced but not first time migrant birds quickly adjust their course toward their destination, proving the existence of an experience-based GPS in these birds. Determining latitude is a relatively simple task, even for humans, whereas longitude poses much larger problems. Birds and other animals however have found a way to achieve this, although we do not yet know how. Possible ways of determining longitude includes using celestial cues in combination with an internal clock, geomagnetic cues such as magnetic intensity or perhaps even olfactory cues. Presently, there is not enough evidence to rule out any of these, and years of studying birds in a laboratory setting have yielded partly contradictory results. We suggest that a concerted effort, where the study of animals in a natural setting goes hand-in-hand with lab-based study, may be necessary to fully understand the mechanism underlying the long-distance navigation system of birds. As such, researchers must remain receptive to alternative interpretations and bear in mind that animal navigation may not necessarily be similar to the human system, and that we know from many years of investigation of long-distance navigation in birds that at least some birds do have a GPS - but we are uncertain how it works.

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