Travel routes to remote ocean targets reveal the map sense resolution for a marine migrant

Hays, G.C., Atchison-Balmond, N., Cerritelli, G., Laloë, J.O., Luschi, P., Mortimer, J.A., Rattray, A., and Esteban, N., (2022) Travel routes to remote ocean targets reveal the map sense resolution for a marine migrant. Journal of the Royal Society Interface


How animals navigate across the ocean to isolated targets remains perplexing greater than 150 years since this question was considered by Charles Darwin. To help solve this long-standing enigma, we considered the likely resolution of any map sense used in migration, based on the navigational performance across different scales (tens to thousands of kilometres). We assessed navigational performance using a unique high-resolution Fastloc-GPS tracking dataset for post-breeding hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) migrating relatively short distances to remote, isolated targets on submerged banks in the Indian Ocean.

Individuals often followed circuitous paths (mean straightness index = 0.54, range 0.14–0.93, s.d. = 0.23, n = 22), when migrating short distances (mean beeline distance to target = 106 km, range 68.7–178.2 km). For example, one turtle travelled 1306.2 km when the beeline distance to the target was only 176.4 km. When off the beeline to their target, turtles sometimes corrected their course both in the open ocean and when encountering shallow water.

Our results provide compelling evidence that hawksbill turtles only have a relatively crude map sense in the open ocean. The existence of widespread foraging and breeding areas on isolated oceanic sites points to target searching in the final stages of migration being common in sea turtles.