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Researchers find evidence that sea turtles navigate with magnetic maps

-meter net stretched parallel to the coastline," Catherine Lohmann said. "Each turtle was placed in a cloth harness and tethered to a tracking device in the pool of water inside the magnetic coil.

"Half of the turtles swam in a magnetic field that exists at a location about 350 kilometers north of where they actually were, she said. "The other half swam in a field that exists at an equivalent distance to the south."

Animals exposed to the northern field responded by swimming south, the biologists found. Those in the southern field swam toward the north. Thus, in each case, turtles swam in the direction that would have taken them home if they had actually been at the place where each magnetic field exists.

"These results imply that turtles have a kind of magnetic map," Ken Lohmann said. "In other words, they can figure out where they are relative to home using magnetic field information. This is a far more complex use of the field than just having a magnetic compass that gives direction."

Last year, the UNC couple and one of their graduate students showed that spiny lobsters possess a similar map sense based on magnetism, he said. Their lobster experiments were the first to demonstrate that at least some invertebrate animals -- traditionally viewed as primitive biological underachievers -- possess navigational skills rivaling those of sea turtles, homing pigeons and other animals with backbones.

Before the work, many biologists assumed that complex navigational skills required a sophisticated brain and nervous system, which are absent in invertebrates.

"This is an exciting area of research right now," Lohmann said. "The picture that is emerging is that magnetic positioning systems are real, and the fact that they exist in both lobsters and sea turtles suggests that they may be widespread among animals."

Future research will examine precisely how the magnetic map is organized and what components of the field t
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Contact: David Williamson
919-962-8596
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
28-Apr-2004


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