Experienced Migratory Bats Integrate the Sun's Position at Dusk for Navigation at Night

Oliver Lindecke, Alise Elksne, Richard A Holland, Gunārs Pētersons, Christian C Voigt
Current Biology: CB 2019 March 26
From bats to whales, millions of mammals migrate every year. However, their navigation capacity for accomplishing long-distance movements remains remarkably understudied and lags behind by five decades compared to other animals [1, 2]-partly because, unlike for other taxa, such as birds and sea turtles, no small-scale orientation assay has so far been developed. Yet recently, bats became a model to investigate which cues mammals use for long-range navigation, and, surprisingly for nocturnal animals, sunset cues, and particularly polarized-light cues, appear to be crucial for calibration of the magnetic-compass system in non-migratory bats [3-5]. This does not appear to hold for a species of migratory bat, however [6], and thus the nature of the information used by migratory bats for navigation remains unclear. Here, we asked whether the position of the solar disk per se is relevant for compass orientation in a migratory bat, Pipistrellus pygmaeus. Using a new experimental assay that measures takeoff orientation, we tested the orientation of bats exposed to a shifted sunset azimuth using a mirror at dusk. Bats exposed to a 180°-rotated azimuth of the setting sun and released after translocation during the same night shifted their heading direction by ∼180° compared to control bats. However, first-year migrants had no clear orientation either as controls or after the same treatment. This suggests that learning the migratory direction is a key component in the navigational system of naive bats in this species. Our study provides rare evidence for the specific cues and mechanisms that migratory mammals use for navigation.

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