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Published October 1992 | Published
Journal Article Open

Evidence that fin whales respond to the geomagnetic field during migration


We challenge the hypothesis that fin whales use a magnetic sense to guide migration by testing for associations between geophysical parameters and the positions where fin whales were observed over the continental shelf off the northeastern United States. Monte Carlo simulations estimated the probability that the distribution of fin whale sighting was random with respect to bottom depth, bottom slope and the intensity and gradient of the geomagnetic field. The simulations demonstrated no overall association of sighting positions with any of these four geophysical parameters. Analysis of the data by season, however, demonstrated statistically reliable associations of sighting positions with areas of low geomagnetic intensity and gradient in winter and fall, respectively, but no association of sighting positions with bathymetric parameters in any season. An attempt to focus on migrating animals by excluding those observed feeding confirmed the associations of sighting positions with low geomagnetic intensity and gradient in winter and fall, respectively, and revealed additional associations with low geomagnetic gradients in winter and spring. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that fin whales, and perhaps other mysticete species, possess a magnetic sense that they use to guide migration.

Additional Information

© 1992 The Company of Biologists Limited. Accepted 1 July 1992. We gratefully acknowledge Drs R. D. Kenney (University of Rhode Island) and D. M. Clark (NOAA Geophysical Data Center) for provision of the CETAP and aeromagnetic and bathymetric survey data; Professor J. A. Westphal and Dr G. E. Danielson (California Institute of Technology) for use of the Space Telescope VAX 11/780 computer system to do the image and statistical analyses in early stages of the work; and A. A. Hohn (Southwest Fisheries Center La Jolla Laboratory) for bringing the existence of the CETAP data set to our notice. This is contribution number 4246 of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology, and was partially supported by NSF grants BNS83-00301 and EAR-8351370 to J. L. Kirschvink, NOAA funding, an equipment grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation and a NRC Research Associateship awarded to M.M.W.

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August 20, 2023
October 24, 2023