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Underwater and surface behavior of homing juvenile northern elephant seals

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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Abstract

Northern elephant seals, Mirounga angustirostris, travel between colonies along the west coast of North America and foraging areas in the North Pacific. They also have the ability to return to their home colony after being experimentally translocated. However, the mechanisms of this navigation are not known. Visual information could serve an important role in navigation, either primary or supplementary. We examined the role of visual cues in elephant seal navigation by translocating three seals and recording their heading direction continuously using GPS, and acceleration and geomagnetic data loggers while they returned to the colony. The seals first reached the coast and then proceeded to the colony by swimming along the coast. While underwater the animals exhibited a horizontally straight course (mean net-to-gross displacement ratio=0.94 +/- 0.02). In contrast, while at the surface they changed their headings up to 360 degrees deg. These results are consistent with the use of visual cues for navigation to the colony. The seals may visually orient by using landmarks as they swim along the coast. We further assessed whether the seals could maintain a consistent heading while underwater during drift dives where one might expect that passive spiraling during drift dives could cause disorientation. However, seals were able to maintain the initial course heading even while underwater during drift dives where there was spiral motion (to within 20 deg). This behavior may imply the use of non-visual cues such as acoustic signals or magnetic fields for underwater orientation.

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)629-636
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Volume214
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2011

    Research areas

  • data logger, 3-D dive, orientation, navigation, migration, SOCKEYE SALMON, MIROUNGA-ANGUSTIROSTRIS, CARCHARODON-CARCHARIAS, ORIENTATION CUES, MAGNETIC COMPASS, MARINE MAMMALS, WEDDELL SEALS, NAVIGATION, TURTLES, PIGEONS

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