Sanderlings (Calidris alba) have a magnetic compass: orientation experiments during spring migration in Iceland

Sanderling (Calidris alba) Science Article 1


The migratory orientation of sanderlings (Calidris alba) was investigated with cage experiments during the spring migration in southwest Iceland. Sanderlings were exposed to 90 deg counterclockwise-shifted magnetic fields under both clear skies and natural overcast. Clear sky control tests resulted in a northerly mean direction, in agreement with predictions based on ringing recovery data and earlier visual observations of departing flocks. Sanderlings closely followed experimental deflections of magnetic fields when tested under clear skies. Control experiments under natural overcast resulted in a bimodal distribution approximately coinciding with the magnetic north-south axis. Overcast tests did not reveal any predictable response to the experimental treatment, but instead resulted in a non-significant circular distribution. The time of orientation experiments in relation to the tidal cycle affects the motivation of the birds to depart, as shown by the lower directional scatter of headings of individuals tested within the appropriate tidal window under clear skies. Sanderlings were significantly more likely to become inactive under overcast conditions than under clear sky conditions. The results demonstrate, for the first time, that a wader species such as the sanderling possesses a magnetic compass and suggest that magnetic cues are of primary directional importance. However, overcast experiments indicate that both celestial and geomagnetic information are needed for sanderlings to realize a seasonally appropriate migratory orientation.

Gudmundur A. Gudmundsson and Roland Sandberg, The Journal of Experimental Biology 203, 3137-3144 (2000)

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