, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 715-718
Date: 09 May 2008

Harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) can steer by the stars

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Abstract

Offshore orientation in marine mammals is still a mystery. For visual orientation during night-time foraging and travelling in the open seas, seals cannot rely on distant terrestrial landmarks, and thus might use celestial cues as repeatedly shown for nocturnally migrating birds. Although seals detect enough stars to probably allow for astronavigation, it was unclear whether they can orient by the night sky. The widely accepted cognitive mechanism for bird night-time orientation by celestial cues is a time-independent star compass with learned geometrical star configurations used to pinpoint north as the rotational centre of the starry sky while there is no conclusive evidence for a time-compensated star compass or true star navigation. Here, we present results for two harbour seals orienting in a custom made swimming planetarium. Both seals learned to highly accurately identify a lodestar out of a pseudo-randomly oriented, realistic projection of the northern hemisphere night sky. Providing the first evidence for star orientation capability in a marine mammal, our seals’ outstanding directional precision would allow them to steer by following lodestars of learned star courses, a celestial orientation mechanism that has been known to be used by Polynesian navigators but has not been considered for animals yet.