Do Eels Use Magnetic Fields To Navigate Through Oceans?

14 April 2017, 8:02 am EDT By Sumit Passary Tech Times
The European eels' 3,728-mile-long journey from the Sargasso Sea to Europe just after birth has been shrouded in mystery. However, a new study may provide answers as to how these creatures navigate through the oceans.  ( Cameron Spencer | Getty Images )

The migration of European eels as they traverse thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean has stumped scientists for a while now. The answer to a particular question — regarding this phenomenon — has eluded scientists and pertains to the navigational ability of the eels to traverse such vast oceans.

Now, a recent study may have found the answer to what enables the eels to maintain their sense of direction during their journey.

Eels Use Magnetic Field To Navigate?

The eels in question hatch in the Sargasso Sea and from there make a 3,728-mile-long journey to reach Europe. Scientists wanted to find out how these newborn creatures managed to find their way across the ocean.

Previously, many biologists believed that the hatchlings swam randomly until they were picked up by the Gulf Stream. However, the new study shows that like other marine creatures, the eels too may be using the Earth's magnetic field to determine the direction they approach.

Previous research has yielded similar results for the sea turtle, trout, and salmon migrations. This indicates that a sixth sense exists in these creatures, through which they are able to discern the Earth's magnetic field and use it to their advantage.

To prove their hypothesis, marine biologists from the University of North Carolina and the University of Miami teamed up for the study. They constructed an underwater chamber, which included a central section connected to a dozen outer parts.

Each of these sections represented 30 degree angles on a compass. A movable wall ensured that the eels were contained inside the central portion of the chamber until the magnetic field was turned on.

As the researchers turned on the field in different parts of the chamber, the glass eels — which is what the newborn eels turn into upon arriving in Europe — were quick to change their course of movement and headed toward a specific direction.

For instance, in a magnetic field which is similar to the one in Sargasso Sea, the eels headed southwest, while a magnetic field similar to the one present in the Atlantic off North America induced the eels to turn northeast.

This proved that the eels changed directions depending upon the magnetic field.

"We were not surprised to find eels have a magnetic map, but we were surprised to discover how well they can detect subtle differences in magnetic fields," stated Naisbett-Jones, a marine biologist from the University of North Carolina and one of the researchers who conducted the experiment.

Criticism Regarding Research

The experiment was carried out on juvenile or glass eels who were around two years old. Marine biologists around the world assert that newborn eels are very different from these juveniles. Moreover, as the eels age, their ability to pick up magnetic fields may also improve.

Critics posit that to conclusively prove that the newborn eels use the Earth's magnetic field to journey across the Atlantic Ocean, researchers would need to perform tests with the hatchlings and not the older juveniles.

The findings of the study have been published in the journal Current Biology.     

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