Seabirds called shearwaters manage to navigate across long stretches of open water to islands where the birds breed. It’s not been clear how the birds do this, but there have been some clues. When scientists magnetically disturbed Cory’s shearwaters, the birds still managed to find their way. But when deprived of their sense of smell, the shearwaters had trouble homing in on their final destination.
Smell wouldn’t seem to be all that useful out over the ocean, especially with winds and other atmospheric disturbances playing havoc on any scents wafting through the air. But now researchers say they have more evidence that shearwaters are using olfactory cues to navigate. Andrew Reynolds of Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, England, and colleagues make their case June 30 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Messing with Cory’s shearwaters or other seabirds, like researchers did in earlier studies, wasn’t a good option, the researchers say, because there are conservation concerns when it comes to these species. Instead, they attached tiny GPS loggers to 210 shearwaters belonging to three species: Cory’s shearwaters, Scopoli’s shearwaters and Cape Verde shearwaters.
But how would the birds’ path reveal how they were navigating? If they were using olfactory cues, the team reasoned, the birds wouldn’t take a straight path to their target. Instead, they would fly straight for a time, guided in that direction by a particular smell. When they lost that scent, their direction would change, until they picked up another scent that could guide them. And only when a bird got close would it use landmarks, other birds and the odor of the breeding colony as guides. If the birds were using some other method of navigation — or randomly searching for where to go — their paths would look much different.
When the researchers analyzed the paths of the shearwaters, 69 percent of the birds moved in a way that matched what was expected if they were using olfactory cues. Nearly all of the journeys that lasted four or more days took this kind of path, but less than half of short flights that lasted less than two days had this kind of flight path.
“All these animals share the same basic pattern,” the researchers write, “strongly suggesting the presence of an underlying common mechanism of orientation which we have identified as olfactory-cued navigation.”