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Magnetic maps in animals — a theory comes of age?

  • Michael J Freake
  • Rachel Muheim
  • John B Phillips
Publishing year: 2006
Language: English
Pages: 327-347
Publication/Series: Quarterly Review of Biology
Volume: 81
Issue: 4
Document type: Journal article review
Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract english

The magnetic map hypothesis proposes that animals can use spatial gradients in the Earth's magnetic field to help determine geographic location. This ability would permit true navigation--reaching a goal from an entirely unfamiliar site with no goal-emanating cues to assist. It is a highly contentious hypothesis since the geomagnetic field fluctuates in time and spatial gradients may be disturbed by geological anomalies. Nevertheless, a substantial body of evidence offers support for the hypothesis. Much of the evidence has been indirect in nature, such as the identification of avian magnetoreceptor mechanisms with functional properties that are consistent with those of a putative map detector or the patterns of orientation of animals exposed to temporal and/or spatial geomagnetic anomalies. However; the most important advances have been made in conducting direct tests of the magnetic map hypothesis by exposing experienced migrants to specific geomagnetic values representing simulated displacements. Appropriate shifts in the direction of orientation, which compensate for the simulated displacements, have been observed in newts, birds, sea turtles, and lobsters, and provide the strongest evidence to date for magnetic map navigation. Careful experimental design and interpretation of orientation data will be essential in the future to determine which components of the magnetic field are used to derive geographic position.


  • Zoology
  • animal navigation
  • magnetic map hypothesis
  • magnetoreceptor
  • migration
  • homing


  • ISSN: 0033-5770
Rachel Muheim
E-mail: rachel [dot] muheim [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se


Functional zoology

+46 46 222 31 93



Centre for Animal Movement Research
Evolutionary Ecology, Department of Biology
Ecology building S-223 62 Lund Sweden