Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Compass


Migratory birds can use a variety of environmental cues for orientation. A primary calibration between the celestial and magnetic compasses seems to be fundamental prior to a bird’s first autumn migration. Releasing hand-raised or rescued young birds back into the wild might therefore be a problem because they might not have established a functional orientation system during their first calendar year. Here, we test whether hand-raised European robins that did not develop any functional compass before or during their first autumn migration could relearn to orient if they were exposed to natural celestial cues during the subsequent winter and spring. When tested in the geomagnetic field without access to celestial cues, these birds could orient in their species-specific spring migratory direction. In contrast, control birds that were deprived of any natural celestial cues throughout remained unable to orient. Our experiments suggest that European robins are still capable of establishing a functional orientation system after their first autumn. Although the external reference remains speculative, most likely, natural celestial cues enabled our birds to calibrate their magnetic compass. Our data suggest that avian compass systems are more flexible than previously believed and have implications for the release of hand-reared migratory birds.

Concepts: Earth's magnetic field, Bird, Orientation, Compass, Bird migration, European Robin, Erithacus


The magnetic compass of a migratory bird, the European robin (Erithacus rubecula), was shown to be lateralized in favour of the right eye/left brain hemisphere. However, this seems to be a property of the avian magnetic compass that is not present from the beginning, but develops only as the birds grow older. During first migration in autumn, juvenile robins can orient by their magnetic compass with their right as well as with their left eye. In the following spring, however, the magnetic compass is already lateralized, but this lateralization is still flexible: it could be removed by covering the right eye for 6 h. During the following autumn migration, the lateralization becomes more strongly fixed, with a 6 h occlusion of the right eye no longer having an effect. This change from a bilateral to a lateralized magnetic compass appears to be a maturation process, the first such case known so far in birds. Because both eyes mediate identical information about the geomagnetic field, brain asymmetry for the magnetic compass could increase efficiency by setting the other hemisphere free for other processes.

Concepts: Earth's magnetic field, Bird, Compass, Bird migration, Nightingale, European Robin, Erithacus, American Robin


Allocentric sense is one of the major components that underlie spatial navigation [1, 2]. In blind patients, the difficulty in spatial exploration is attributed, at least partly, to the deficit of absolute direction perception [3, 4]. In support of this notion, we announce that blind adult rats can perform spatial tasks normally when externally provided with real-time feedback of their head directions. Head-mountable microstimulators coupled with a digital geomagnetic compass were bilaterally implanted in the primary visual cortex of adult rats whose eyelids had been sutured. These “blind” rats were trained to seek food pellets in a T-shaped maze or a more complicated maze. Within tens of trials, they learned to manage the geomagnetic information source to solve the mazes. Their performance levels and navigation strategies were similar to those of normal sighted, intact rats. Thus, blind rats can recognize self-location through extrinsically provided stereotactic cues.

Concepts: Brain, Cerebrum, Visual perception, Lateral geniculate nucleus, Retinotopy, Compass, Cortical blindness, Maze


The canonical drivers of population genetic structure, or spatial genetic variation, are isolation by distance and isolation by environment. Isolation by distance predicts that neighboring populations will be genetically similar and geographically distant populations will be genetically distinct [1]. Numerous examples also exist of isolation by environment, a phenomenon in which populations that inhabit similar environments (e.g., same elevation, temperature, or vegetation) are genetically similar even if they are distant, whereas populations that inhabit different environments are genetically distinct even when geographically close [2-4]. These dual models provide a widely accepted conceptual framework for understanding population structure [5-8]. Here, we present evidence for an additional, novel process that we call isolation by navigation, in which the navigational mechanism used by a long-distance migrant influences population structure independently of isolation by either distance or environment. Specifically, we investigated the population structure of loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) [9], which return to nest on their natal beaches by seeking out unique magnetic signatures along the coast-a behavior known as geomagnetic imprinting [10-12]. Results reveal that spatial variation in Earth’s magnetic field strongly predicts genetic differentiation between nesting beaches, even when environmental similarities and geographic proximity are taken into account. The findings provide genetic corroboration of geomagnetic imprinting [10, 13]. Moreover, they provide strong evidence that geomagnetic imprinting and magnetic navigation help shape the population structure of sea turtles and perhaps numerous other long-distance migrants that return to their natal areas to reproduce [13-17].

Concepts: Genetics, Magnetic field, Biology, Earth's magnetic field, Earth, Population genetics, Compass, Loggerhead Sea Turtle


Bird collisions with windows are an important conservation concern. Efficient mitigation efforts should prioritize retrofitting sections of glass exhibiting the highest mortality of birds. Most collision studies, however, record location meta-data at a spatial scale too coarse (i.e., compass direction of facing façade) to be useful for large buildings with complex geometries. Through spatial analysis of three seasons of survey data at a large building at a university campus, we found that GPS data were able to identify collision hotspots while compass directions could not. To demonstrate the broad applicability and utility of this georeferencing approach, we identified collision hotspots at two additional urban areas in North America. The data for this latter exercise were collected via the citizen science database, iNaturalist, which we review for its potential to generate the georeferenced data necessary for directing building retrofits and mitigating a major source of anthropogenic bird mortality.

Concepts: Orientation, North America, Global Positioning System, Cardinal direction, Compass, Boxing the compass, Navigational equipment, Compass rose


Vikings routinely crossed the North Atlantic without a magnetic compass and left their mark on lands as far away as Greenland, Newfoundland and Baffin Island. Based on an eleventh-century dial fragment artefact, found at Uunartoq in Greenland, it is widely accepted that they sailed along chosen latitudes using primitive Sun compasses. Such instruments were tested on sea and proved to be efficient hand-held navigation tools, but the dimensions and incisions of the Uunartoq find are far from optimal in this role. On the basis of the sagas mentioning sunstones, incompatible hypotheses were formed for Viking solar navigation procedures and primitive skylight polarimetry with dichroic or birefringent crystals. We describe here a previously unconceived method of navigation based on the Uunartoq artefact functioning as a ‘twilight board’, which is a combination of a horizon board and a Sun compass optimized for use when the Sun is close to the horizon. We deduced an appropriate solar navigation procedure using a twilight board, a shadow-stick and birefringent crystals, which bring together earlier suggested methods in harmony and provide a true skylight compass function. This could have allowed Vikings to navigate around the clock, to use the artefact dial as a Sun compass during long parts of the day and to use skylight polarization patterns in the twilight period. In field tests, we found that true north could be appointed with such a medieval skylight compass with an error of about ±4° when the artificially occluded Sun had elevation angles between +10° and -8° relative to the horizon. Our interpretation allows us to assign exact dates to the gnomonic lines on the artefact and outlines the schedule of the merchant ships that sustained the Viking colony in Greenland a millennium ago.

Concepts: Navigation, Orientation, Equator, Compass, Ship, Sunrise, Sunset, Orienteering


The radical pair model proposes that the avian magnetic compass is based on radical pair processes in the eye, with cryptochrome, a flavoprotein, suggested as receptor molecule. Cryptochrome 1a (Cry1a) is localized at the discs of the outer segments of the UV/violet cones of European robins and chickens. Here, we show the activation characteristics of a bird cryptochrome in vivo under natural conditions. We exposed chickens for 30 min to different light regimes and analysed the amount of Cry1a labelled with an antiserum against an epitope at the C-terminus of this protein. The staining after exposure to sunlight and to darkness indicated that the antiserum labels only an illuminated, activated form of Cry1a. Exposure to narrow-bandwidth lights of various wavelengths revealed activated Cry1a at UV, blue and turquoise light. With green and yellow, the amount of activated Cry1a was reduced, and with red, as in the dark, no activated Cry1a was labelled. Activated Cry1a is thus found at all those wavelengths at which birds can orient using their magnetic inclination compass, supporting the role of Cry1a as receptor molecule. The observation that activated Cry1a and well-oriented behaviour occur at 565 nm green light, a wavelength not absorbed by the fully oxidized form of cryptochrome, suggests that a state other than the previously suggested Trp(•)/FAD(•) radical pair formed during photoreduction is crucial for detecting magnetic directions.

Concepts: Electron, Light, Electromagnetic radiation, Redox, Bird, Eye, Wavelength, Compass


Cataglyphis ants are renowned for their impressive navigation skills, which have been studied in numerous experiments during forward locomotion. However, the ants' navigational performance during backward homing when dragging large food loads has not been investigated until now. During backward locomotion, the odometer has to deal with unsteady motion and irregularities in inter-leg coordination. The legs' sensory feedback during backward walking is not just a simple reversal of the forward stepping movements: compared with forward homing, ants are facing towards the opposite direction during backward dragging. Hence, the compass system has to cope with a flipped celestial view (in terms of the polarization pattern and the position of the sun) and an inverted retinotopic image of the visual panorama and landmark environment. The same is true for wind and olfactory cues. In this study we analyze for the first time backward-homing ants and evaluate their navigational performance in channel and open field experiments. Backward-homing Cataglyphis fortis desert ants show remarkable similarities in the performance of homing compared with forward-walking ants. Despite the numerous challenges emerging for the navigational system during backward walking, we show that ants perform quite well in our experiments. Direction and distance gauging was comparable to that of the forward-walking control groups. Interestingly, we found that backward-homing ants often put down the food item and performed foodless search loops around the left food item. These search loops were mainly centred around the drop-off position (and not around the nest position), and increased in length the closer the ants came to their fictive nest site.

Concepts: Sun, Performance, Navigation, Running, Walking, Distance, The Forward, Compass


Displacement studies have shown that long-distance, night-migrating songbirds are able to perform true navigation from their first spring migration onwards [1,2]. True navigation requires both a map and a compass. Whereas birds are known to have sun, star, and magnetic compasses, the nature of the map cues used has remained highly controversial. There is quite strong experimental evidence for the involvement of olfactory map cues in pigeon and seabird homing [3]. In contrast, the evidence for the use of magnetic map cues has remained weak and very little is known about the map cues used by long-distance migratory songbirds. In earlier experiments [2,4], we have shown that Eurasian reed warblers physically displaced 1,000 km eastward from Rybachy to Zvenigorod (Figure 1) re-orient towards their breeding destinations by changing their orientation in Emlen funnels from the NE to the NW. We have also previously shown that this re-orientation cannot be explained by a ‘jetlag effect’ [5]. We have now used this model system to show that Eurasian reed warblers use geomagnetic map cues to determine their position.

Concepts: Magnetic field, Bird, Experiment, Orientation, Theory, Compass, Orienteering


Many coral reef fish larvae spend days to months in the open ocean before settlement on coral reefs [1]. Early in development, larvae have limited swimming capabilities and will therefore be greatly affected by currents. This can potentially result in dispersal distances of tens of kilometers [2]. Nevertheless, up to 60 % of surviving larvae have been shown to return to their natal reefs [2]. To home, the larvae must develop strong swimming capabilities and appropriate orientation mechanisms. Most late-stage larval reef fish can, after being passively drifted for days to weeks, swim strongly [3], and Ostorhinchus doederleini larvae have been shown to use chemotaxis to identify their natal reef once in its vicinity [2] and a sun compass for longer distance orientation [4] during the day. But how do they orient at night? Here, we show that newly settled fish caught at One Tree Island (OTI) at the Capricorn Bunker Reef Group (Great Barrier Reef) can use geomagnetic compass information to keep a south-east heading. This behavior might help them return to their natal reef in the absence of any celestial cues at night.

Concepts: Fish, Coral, Coral reef, Orientation, Coral bleaching, Great Barrier Reef, Compass, Belize Barrier Reef