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Young eels use magnetic ‘sixth sense’ to navigate

Ability explains how fish find ocean currents that sweep them to Europe’s rivers

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12:06pm, April 13, 2017
juvenile European eel

EEL GPS  Juvenile European eels may use Earth’s magnetic field to help them cross the Atlantic Ocean to reach freshwater rivers in Europe, including these seen in the U.K.’s Bristol Channel.

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Earth’s magnetic field helps eels go with the flow.

The Gulf Stream fast-tracks young European eels from their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea to the European rivers where they grow up. Eels can sense changes in Earth’s magnetic field to find those highways in a featureless expanse of ocean — even if it means swimming away from their ultimate destination at first, researchers report in the April 13 Current Biology.

European eels (Anguilla anguilla) mate and lay eggs in the salty waters of the Sargasso Sea, a seaweed-rich region in the North Atlantic Ocean. But the fish spend most of their adult lives living in freshwater rivers and estuaries in Europe and North Africa.

Exactly how eels make their journey from seawater to freshwater has baffled scientists for more than a century, says Nathan Putman, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami.

The critters are hard to track. “They’re elusive,” says study coauthor Lewis Naisbett-Jones, a biologist now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They migrate at night and at depth. The only reason we know they spawn in the Sargasso Sea is because that’s where the smallest larvae have been collected.”

Some other marine animals, like sea turtles and salmon, tune in to subtle changes in Earth’s magnetic field to help them migrate long distances. To test whether eels might have the same ability, Putman and his colleagues placed young European eels in a 3,000-liter tank of saltwater surrounded by copper wires. Running electric current through the wires simulated the magnetic field experienced at different places on Earth.

Slithery sense

Researchers tested eels’ navigational sense by determining their response to simulations of the magnetic field as experienced at four different places along their route from the Sargasso Sea, where they are born, to freshwater rivers in Europe, where they mature.

map of Atlantic ocean eel migration

Eels appeared to use the magnetic field as a cue in their Sargasso Sea spawning grounds to swim toward the Gulf Stream (A) and at another point slightly further on their journey east to Europe to remain in the Gulf Stream (B), mostly swimming in the same direction. But eels didn’t seem to respond to a re-creation of magnetic field signals closer to Europe (C) or in Wales (D). A bigger wedge indicates that more eels swam in that direction. Yellow arrows represent currents circulating in the Atlantic Ocean.

With no electric current, the eels didn’t swim in any particular direction. But when the magnetic field matched what eels would experience in the Sargasso Sea, the fish mostly swam to the southwest corner of their tank. That suggests the eels might use the magnetic field as a guide to help them move in a specific direction to leave their spawning grounds.

Swimming southwest from the Sargasso Sea seems counterintuitive for an eel trying to ultimately go northeast, Putman says. But computer simulations revealed that that particular bearing would push eels into the Gulf Stream, whisking them off to Europe. Catching a more circuitous ride on a current is probably more efficient for the eels than swimming directly across the North Atlantic, says Putman.

Magnetic fields could help eels stay the course, too. A magnetic field corresponding to a spot in the North Atlantic further along the eels’ route to Europe sent the eels in the tank heading northeast. That’s the direction they’d need to go to keep following the Gulf Stream to Europe.

The researchers did see a fair amount of variation in how strongly individual eels responded to magnetic fields. But that makes sense, says Julian Dodson, a biologist at Laval University in Quebec City who wasn’t part of the study. The Gulf Stream is such a powerful current that the eels could wriggle in a spread of directions to get swept up in its flow.

Now, the researchers are looking at whether adult eels use a similar magnetic map to get back to the Sargasso Sea. Adults follow a meandering return route that might take more than a year to complete, previous research suggests (SN Online: 10/5/16). But whether there’s some underlying force that guides them remains to be seen.

Citations

L.C. Naisbett-Jones et al. A magnetic map leads juvenile European eels to the Gulf Stream. Current Biology, April 13, 2017. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.03.015.

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