To navigate, birds require a ‘map’ (to tell them home is south, for example) and a ‘compass’ (to tell them where south is), with the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field being the preferred compass systems.
A new paper provides evidence that the information pigeons use as a map is in fact available in the atmosphere: odours and winds allow them to find their way home. The results are now published in Biogeosciences, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).
Experiments over the past 40 years have shown that homing pigeons get disoriented when their sense of smell is impaired or when they don’t have access to natural winds at their home site. But many researchers were not convinced that wind-borne odours could provide the map pigeons need to navigate. Now, Hans Wallraff of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, has shown that the atmosphere does contain the necessary information to help pigeons find their way home.
In previous research, Wallraff collected air samples at over 90 sites within a 200 km radius around a former pigeon loft near Würzburg in southern Germany. The samples revealed that the ratios among certain ‘volatile organic compounds’ (chemicals that can be a source of scents and odours) in the atmosphere increase or decrease along specific directions. “For instance, the percentage of compound A in the sum A+B or A+B+C+D increases the farther one moves from north to south,” Wallraff explains.
These changes in compound ratios translate into changes in perceived smell. But a pigeon that has never left its loft does not know in what directions what changes occur – unless it has been exposed to winds at its home site.
At home, a bird is thought to associate certain smells with particular wind directions. “If the percentage of compound A increases with southerly winds, a pigeon living in a loft in Würzburg learns this wind-correlated increase. If released at a site some 100 km south of home, the bird smells that the ratio of compound A is above what it is on average at its loft and flies north,” Wallraff explains. To use an analogy, a person in Munich could smell an Alpine breeze when there is wind blowing from the south. When displaced closer to the mountains, they would detect a strong Alpine scent and remember that, at home, that smell is associated with southerly winds: the person would know that, roughly, they needed to travel north to find home.
But this explanation of how pigeons might use wind-borne odours to find their loft was just a hypothesis: Wallraff still needed to prove that the atmosphere does indeed contain the basis of the map system pigeons need to navigate. In the new Biogeosciences paper, he develops a model showing that ‘virtual pigeons’ with only knowledge of winds and odours at home, can find their way back to their lofts by using real atmospheric data.
“My virtual pigeons served as tools to select those volatile compounds whose spatial distributions, combined with variations dependent on wind direction, were most suitable for homeward navigation,” explains Wallraff.
The model uses an iterative approach to imitate animal evolution by introducing random mutations in the virtual pigeons, making them most sensitive to those volatile compounds that are most effective for navigation. By selecting the best mutations in the course of thousands of generations, the model creates virtual pigeons capable of finding their bearings as well as real pigeons, showing that even inexperienced birds could use atmospheric information for navigation. The findings present a missing piece in the puzzle of homing pigeon navigation, confirming that winds and odours can indeed work as a map system.
“Work with real pigeons was the beginning of the story. In this research, I wanted to find out whether and in what way the chemical atmosphere fulfils the demands for avian navigation. Eventually, to identify the chemical compounds birds actually use for home-finding, we will need real birds again. But this is far in the future.”*More information*
Full citation: Wallraff, H. G.: Ratios among atmospheric trace gases together with winds imply exploitable information for bird navigation: a model elucidating experimental results, Biogeosciences, 10, 6929-6943, doi:10.5194/bg-10-6929-2013, 2013.
The *European Geosciences Union (http://www.egu.eu)* is Europe’s premier geosciences union, dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in the Earth, planetary, and space sciences for the benefit of humanity, worldwide. It is a non-profit interdisciplinary learned association of scientists founded in 2002. The EGU has a current portfolio of 15 diverse scientific journals, which use an innovative open access format, and organises a number of topical meetings, and education and outreach activities. Its annual General Assembly is the largest and most prominent European geosciences event, attracting over 11,000 scientists from all over the world. The meeting’s sessions cover a wide range of topics, including volcanology, planetary exploration, the Earth’s internal structure and atmosphere, climate, energy, and resources. The 2014 EGU General Assembly is taking place is Vienna, Austria from 27 April to 2 May 2014. For information regarding the press centre at the meeting and media registration, please check http://media.egu.eu closer to the time of the conference.
If you wish to receive our press releases via email, please use the press release subscription form at http://www.egu.eu/news/subscribe/. Subscribed journalists and other members of the media receive EGU press releases under embargo (if applicable) 24 hours in advance of public dissemination.*Contacts*
First time-lapse footage of cell activity during limb regeneration
25.10.2016 | eLife
Phenotype at the push of a button
25.10.2016 | Institut für Pflanzenbiochemie
Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.
This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...
Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion
Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...
Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.
"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...
In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.
A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...
By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.
"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...
14.10.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
12.10.2016 | Event News
25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences
25.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering
25.10.2016 | Process Engineering