The Earth’s magnetic field provides a pervasive source of directional information used by phylogenetically diverse marine animals. Behavioral experiments with sea turtles, spiny lobsters, and sea slugs have revealed that all have a magnetic compass sense, despite vast differences in the environment each inhabits and the spatial scale over which each moves. For two of these animals, the Earth’s field also serves as a source of positional information. Hatchling loggerhead sea turtles from Florida responded to the magnetic fields found in three widely separated regions of the Atlantic Ocean by swimming in directions that would, in each case, facilitate movement along the migratory route. Thus, for young loggerheads, regional magnetic fields function as navigational markers and elicit changes in swimming direction at crucial geographic boundaries. Older turtles, as well as spiny lobsters, apparently acquire a “magnetic map” that enables them to use magnetic topography to determine their position relative to specific goals. Relatively little is known about the neural mechanisms that underlie magnetic orientation and navigation. A promising model system is the marine mollusc Tritonia diomedea, which possesses both a magnetic compass and a relatively simple nervous system. Six neurons in the brain of T. diomedea have been identified that respond to changes in magnetic fields. At least some of these appear to be ciliary motor neurons that generate or modulate the final behavioral output of the orientation circuitry. These findings represent an encouraging step toward a holistic understanding of the cells and circuitry that underlie magnetic orientation behavior in one model organism.
Source: Shaun D. Cain, Larry C. Boles, John H. Wang, and Kenneth J. Lohmann. Integrative and Comparative Biology 2005 45(3):539-546.