Elephant seals have impressive navigation skills • Earth.com

Each year, pregnant elephant seals travel more than 10,000 kilometers across the eastern North Pacific Ocean before returning to their breeding beaches to give birth (about five days after arrival). A new study led by the University of California, Santa Cruz has found that this 240-day trek is possible thanks to the animals’ impressive navigational abilities that depend on an internal map sense that works much like a built-in GPS system. .

“We found that migrating elephant seals know how far they are from their breeding beach thousands of miles away. They also know approximately how long it will take them to get back,” said study lead author Roxanne Beltran, a postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz.

Although scientists have long known that elephant seals are expert navigators, how the seals managed to get back to the beach just in time for breeding season remains a mystery. Using satellite tracking data collected from more than 100 adult female seals, Dr. Beltran and his colleagues found that elephant seals can adjust the timing of their movements based on a complex internal perception of space. and time.

The data suggests seals decided to turn back based on how far away they were from breeding beaches. According to the researchers, these decisions were not related to their physical condition, measured in the amount of body fat.

“We were surprised that foraging success or body fat percentage was not more strongly related to when seals begin the return leg of the migration,” Beltran said. “We expected high performing (i.e. larger) seals to end their foraging journeys earlier, but this was not the case; instead, it seems like they’re well-timed to strategically turn around based on where they are and how long it will take them to get back.

More research is needed to find out what sensory cues elephant seals rely on to know where they are and decide to head in the right direction at the right time. Clarifying these questions will help scientists better understand elephant seals and design more effective conservation strategies.

The study is published in the journal Current biology.

By Andrei Ionescu, Terre.com Personal editor

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