Migration observation

I love this little observation by James Mather…

“I was on a ladder clearing the gutters end of last week, and over a period of hours heard a number of flocks of birds gathering to migrate, and I could see them heading off in V-formation. Then, at one point, low cloud closed in, but I could hear birds,  but not see them. Then, I happened to look up to see through a small gap in the cloud, a formation directly overhead.

So, the formation of the group and its initial direction were set without any visual reference. They were navigating by other means.”

We agree that animals navigate my other means and we think that it is likely that they have a sense of direction as they set out.  The “V” shape allows a leader to do all the work and the others to use the slip stream to use less energy.

Work at Oxford suggests that the more navigators (lead birds) in a flock the better as they all nudge each other to find the best route and the result is the course is the best course as adapted by them all.

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The Wayfinders of the South Seas

I was looking through an old copy of Classic Boat magazine (September 2004) when I discovered this article on how traditional Polynesian navigators operated.

I have précised this article. For me, the importance of all this is that humans are animals but we can communicate together so that insights on how we navigated before the modern era may help us understand how animals might navigate too. Our problem is always, “how do animals inherit the information they need to navigate”.

Polynesian navigation was a complex science handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. A skilled navigator (Palu) was held in high regard. His training required him to develop acute powers of observation and memory. By the time a Palu graduated he possessed an intricate knowledge of the sun, stars and planets, his geographical environment for a radius of a thousand miles and how to read the waves and clouds.

The Polynesian navigator orientated himself from home by keeping a mental record of all courses steered since departure and any factors that might affect the course. This is just what dead reckoning is. At any stage he could run through this data and tell you the approximate direction of his home and roughly how long it would take to get there. Did they posses a sense of direction, I ask?

Observation of natural features was very important. The departing canoe would look out for landmarks as long as they were available, then use the rising and setting positions of stars to guide them by. They knew their stars and what rose up and set where. It is easier in these latitudes as the stars come up virtually vertically over the horizon. These star sights along with their local knowledge of such things as the winds, currents, ocean swells, and relative locations of islands, reefs and sea lanes put everything in context.

When the sky is overcast, a helmsman could maintain his course relative to the ocean swells or wind. Low lying islands in the distance were identified by distinctive cloud formations, reflected swells, drifting flotsam, or the sighting of shore birds.

Certain stars were known; their reach, their zenith over certain islands, while a night entrance through a reef passage might be made by lining up a geographical feature with a star close to the horizon.

Richard Nissen

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Animal navigation based on Gravity

Here are the points to be added that I anticipated or predicted that they should happen as proof or implied consequences of my animal navigation model.

The posting in the website is Introduction to my Ideas from Sept 2013 – “Gravity and Gyro effects are the basis of animal navigation, by Antonio Nafarrate“.


1) From a paper by Lindauer and Martin describing “Errors” in the direction pointing by Bees while performing the “waggle” Dance a molecule with an internal rotor was anticipated  and was predicted that it was to be found in a Lipid bilayer membrane controlling the passage of Ions.

This molecule was described in 1993 by Sir John Walker FRS 1997 Nobel Laureate for the structure of ATP Synthase.

2) This mechanism was also to be found in plants and it is in the Chloroplasts.

3) The connection between Navigation and Biological Rhythms was proven by a paper showing that “Clock Mutants” of Drosophila have no Chemical differences but small conformational changes of the structure of ATP Synthase.

4)  The only cue needed is Gravity as sensed by these rotors that act as detectors of the rotation of the Earth as a Foucault pendulum does it.

5) A paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology Nov 2014 reports Homing Pigeons altering their courses following features of the local Gravitational Topography in the vicinity of a non-magnetic Meteor Crater near Kiev Ukraine.

6) A paper in Nature by David Keays PhD reports that no Iron compounds are present in the beaks of Pigeons as proposed by researchers that support the idea of Geomagnetic Orientation.

7) There is no effect observed in the Honey Bees daily activities under a variety of changes in the magnetic conditions around the hive as indicated in a paper by Dr. Gerhard Gries and his team in PLOS one Dec. 26, 2014.

8) No records ever found of extinctions resulting from the many periodic Geomagnetic field reversals well recorded in the Iron magnetic compounds found in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as Africa and South America separates.

Antonio Nafarrate  2015

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RIN16 (Animal Navigation)

Every three years the Royal Institute of Navigation hosts a conference in the UK for everyone interested in Animal navigation.  The next one is in 2016:

RIN16 (Animal Navigation)

  • 13/04/2016 12:00:00 to 15/04/2016 12:00:00
  • Royal Holloway College, London

RIN16 Orientation & Navigation Birds, Humans & Other Animals will be the ninth International Conference on Animal Navigation.

If you are interested in this subject, or researching anything on animal navigation it is a must to attend or present a paper:

Here are all the details and the links you need:

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Honey bees are not effected by Magnetism

Our associate editor Antonio Nafarrate has brought this paper to my attention.

“Does the Earth’s magnetic Field serve as a reference alignment for the Honeybee waggle dance” (Dec 2014) by Professor Gerhard Gries et al.

This paper is fascinating as it uses the famous waggle dance performed inside the hive by the foragers to show other bees where there is a good food source as the driver for researching if bees are directed by gravity or the magnetic field.

I liked the way that they bothered about the fact that this is conducted in the darkness of the hive on the vertical sides of the combs where the direction of the sun (which is the key director) is the vertical and the angle off is the bearing for the food source. The dance also tells how far off the food source is to be found. They admit we still do not understand how the other bees read the waggle dance in the pitch black of the inside of the hive.

The question for the researcher was whether the reference lines for the bees is the magnetic field or the Earth’s gravitational field. As changing the gravitational field is impossible and would upset the bees it was decided to change the hive magnetic environment with Helmholz coils to manipulate both the declination of the magnetic field and its intensity.

Whatever was done to the Magnetic environment (LGMF = Local ambient geomagnetic field) this had no effect on the waggle dance and its efficiency in recruiting and directing bees to the food source. This led the researchers to conclude that the direction of the Earth’s gravitational field was the obvious alternative reference line.

This is a seminal piece of work as it again questions the belief that animals use the magnetic field to navigate by. Interestingly, the Wiltshcos, whose work on magnetic navigation in animals is legendary, were invited to review this paper.

Summary by Richard Nissen
Editor – July 2015



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The Compass Within – Sense of direction

Article in Nature volume 18 number 4 April 2015

This is a very important piece of work which begins to bring us to an understanding how a sense of direction works and which is NOT magnetic based. We at animalnav.org know that this “sense of direction” must be crucial for navigation so Simon Raggett’s (one of our editors) finding of this work is really important.

Here is Simon Raggett’s summary and review of the work: 

Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 18, No. 4, April 2015

Summary and review of the above article

Head-direction systems function as a compass. Neurons involved in these systems increase their firing rates when the head is pointed in a particular direction. Firing is also influenced by the angular velocity of head momentum. Head-direction information is viewed as a key part of the brain’s navigation system, and is also important for the development of grid cells in the entorhinal cortex.

Internal networks

Head-direction networks have been suggested to represent orientation, being achieved by means of internal network interactions. Head-direction neurons in multiple brain regions maintain a representation of a subject’s direction. Individual neurons are tuned to particular directions, and the subset of neurons active at any particular moment represents the subject’s direction.

Ring attractors

Since the 1990s, theorists have proposed an attractor network or ring attractor of neurons that function together, keeping the representation of direction aligned, or recovering it, in the case of the subject becoming disoriented. Neurons not orientated to a particular direction are suggested to be inhibited, giving local excitations surrounded by global inhibition. In contrast to a compass that selects an external north, the head-direction system defines its own ‘north’. The location of activity on the ‘ring’ differentiates the subject’s direction. The internal generation of direction is thus a type of internal neural compass driven by the activity of specific neurons. The internal processing is seen as the primary factor with external signals then becoming associated with it.

Neural recordings

The authors discuss the extent to which head-direction processes depend on internally generated activity, and the extent to which they depend on external signals. The relationship between internally generated activity and external signals is a key topic in current neuroscience. The authors’ study was based on recordings of the activity of ensembles of head-direction neurons in the antero-dorsal thalamic nucleus and the post-subiculum. Their findings show that external inputs, including visual signals, influence an internally organised network that enhances such signals. The head-direction system involves multiple brain regions including the brain stem, the antero-dorsal thalamic nucleus, the post-subiculum and the entorhinal cortex.

Preservation in sleep

The coherence of the head-direction neurons was preserved in sleep indicating that the connectivity of the head-direction neurons is sustained in sleep. This finding has been seen to confirm the existence of internally generated head-direction. The much faster timescale during slow wave sleep was seen as being reminiscent of hippocampal signalling during sleep.

The study found that the correlated activity of the antero-dorsal nucleus and the post-subiculum was preserved across different brain states, and appeared to derive from a combination of internal and external processes. In sleep, the head-direction system can move independently of sensory inputs, thus indicating an internally organised aspect that makes predictions, which can subsequently be combined with external signals, and adapted to ongoing changes in the environment. With ambiguous external signals, internal head-direction systems may help resolve conflicts in navigational decisions.

Unfortunately we cannot bring you the whole article but you can follow this thread:




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A little navigational help from animals

A little navigational help from animals.

Tristam Gooley, who is one of our heroes, and a brilliant natural navigator have posted this fascinating link to his web site.

You should follow this and delve into his other insights too as surely animals use many of the same clues as the ones that Tristan points out:


Richard Nissen

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