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Light guides flight of migratory birds

Songbirds use multiple sources of directional cues to guide their seasonal migrations, including the Sun, star patterns, the earth's magnetic field, and sky polarized light patterns. To avoid navigational errors as cue availability changes with time of day and weather conditions, these "compass" systems must be calibrated to a common reference. Experiments over the last 30 years have failed to resolve the fundamental question of how migratory birds integrate multiple sources of directional information into a coherent navigational system.

Last autumn, Rachel Muheim, a postdoctoral associate in biology professor John Phillips' lab at Virginia Tech, captured Savannah sparrows in the Yukon before they headed south. She was able to demonstrate that the birds calibrate their magnetic compass based on polarized light patterns at sunset and sunrise.

The research appears in the Aug. 11, 2006, issue of Science, in the article, "Polarized Light Cues Underlie Compass Calibration in Migratory Songbirds," by Muheim, Phillips, and Suzanne Akesson. Muheim did her Ph.D. work at Lund University in Sweden with Akesson, who made the Alaska trip possible.

Polarized light is light that oscillates in one plane relative to the direction of propagation. At sunrise and sunset, there is a band of intense polarized light 90 degrees from the sun that passes directly overhead through the zenith and intersects the horizon 90 degrees to the right and left of the sun. Just as the sun location changes with latitude and the time of year, so does the alignment of the band of polarized light.

Muheim and Phillips argue that migratory songbirds average the sunrise and sunset intersections of the polarization band with the horizon to find the north-south meridian (geographic north-south axis), providing a reference that is independent of time of year and latitude. The birds then use this geographic reference to calibrate their other compass systems.

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Source:Virginia Tech


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