Diverse ocean migrants, including some sea turtles, elephant seals, and salmon, begin life in particular reproductive areas along coastlines, disperse across vast expanses of sea, and then return as adults to their natal areas to reproduce. Little is known about how such marine animals guide themselves to the correct coastal region from hundreds or thousands of kilometers away and after absences ranging in duration from a few months to a decade or more. One hypothesis is that animals imprint on the magnetic field of their home area and use this information to return. The Earth's field varies predictably across the globe, so different geographic areas are marked by distinctive magnetic fields that might, in principle, provide unique magnetic signatures for natal areas. A potentially serious complication for this hypothesis is that the Earth's field changes gradually over time, causing the magnetic signatures that define natal areas to slowly drift. This secular variation could make natal homing via magnetic imprinting impossible if the magnetic signatures moved too far from the natal area. To investigate whether magnetic imprinting is compatible with secular variation, we sought a species with a life history that poses challenges for the hypothesis, reasoning that if magnetic imprinting is consistent with natal homing under unfavorable circumstances, then it would also be plausible in most other cases. We chose the Kemp's ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii), an endangered species that ranges widely over the Gulf of Mexico, northern Caribbean, and the eastern U.S. coast, but returns to nest along a single, limited region of coastline in northern Mexico. This species requires approximately 10–15 years to reach sexual maturity and is thus absent from its natal area for much longer than animals such as salmon and elephant seals. Given this long absence, the Kemp's ridley appears to be particularly susceptible to effects of secular variation if it relies on magnetic imprinting. The modeling results we report here show that the magnetic imprinting hypothesis can account for how the Kemp's ridley turtle returns to its natal region even after absences of a decade or more.
Compatibility of Magnetic Imprinting and Secular Variation
Putman, N.; Lohmann, K. (2008). Compatibility of Magnetic Imprinting and Secular Variation. Current Biology, 18(14), 596-597.