Migratory Eurasian Reed Warblers Can Use Magnetic Declination to Solve the Longitude Problem

Nikita Chernetsov, Alexander Pakhomov, Dmitry Kobylkov, Dmitry Kishkinev, Richard A Holland, Henrik Mouritsen
Current Biology: CB 2017 September 11, 27 (17): 2647-2651.e2
The longitude problem (determining east-west position) is a classical problem in human sea navigation. Prior to the use of GPS satellites, extraordinarily accurate clocks measuring the difference between local time and a fixed reference (e.g., GMT) [1] were needed to determine longitude. Birds do not appear to possess a time-difference clock sense [2]. Nevertheless, experienced night-migratory songbirds can correct for east-west displacements to unknown locations [3-9]. Consequently, migratory birds must solve the longitude problem in a different way, but how they do so has remained a scientific mystery [10]. We suggest that experienced adult Eurasian reed warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) can use magnetic declination to solve the longitude problem at least under some circumstances under clear skies. Experienced migrants tested during autumn migration in Rybachy, Russia, were exposed to an 8.5° change in declination while all other cues remained unchanged. This corresponds to a virtual magnetic displacement to Scotland if and only if magnetic declination is a part of their map. The adult migrants responded by changing their heading by 151° from WSW to ESE, consistent with compensation for the virtual magnetic displacement. Juvenile migrants that had not yet established a navigational map also oriented WSW at the capture site but became randomly oriented when the magnetic declination was shifted 8.5°. In combination with latitudinal cues, which birds are known to detect and use [10-12], magnetic declination could provide the mostly east-west component for a true bi-coordinate navigation system under clear skies for experienced migratory birds in some areas of the globe.

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