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Eels Navigate the Ocean Using the Earth’s Magnetic Fields (And We Can, Too)

Eels Navigate the Ocean Using the Earth’s Magnetic Fields (And We Can, Too)
iStock/thaneesa

Some eels have proven they can use Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate the expansive Atlantic Ocean.

The Earth and its eels

Lewis C. Naisbett-Jones, at Lohmann Lab at the Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, began studying eels after discovering juvenile European eels undertake a migration from the Sargasso Sea to Europe. This journey is nearly 6,000 km.

Naisbett-Jones explains that the adults return to the Sargasso Sea some 15 years later.

“This fascinated me, particularly from a navigational perspective, and after realizing that we still didn’t know how these eels achieve this journey, I decided to study it myself,” he adds.

The study

Naisbett-Jones’ study was extensive. In order to figure out how the eels navigate, he took almost 1,000 young European eels, and placed the eels in apparatuses that mimic the Earth’s magnetic field at three points—each point featured a different intensity and direction.

Every day for a month, Naisbett-Jones took 16 eels and placed one eel in each container. He then turned on the magnetic coil that surrounded the container and allowed the eels to choose where to go.

“[O]verall, the eels did indeed respond to the magnetic fields. And they did so in a way that, had they been in the Atlantic Ocean, would have directed them into the Gulf Stream,” NPR reports.

The study was able to show that eels can, in fact, use positional information during their ocean migrations.

Future research

Although freshwater life-history stages of eels have been relatively well studied, researchers have barely scraped the surface with the oceanic stages.

“We still don’t know exactly where the American and European eels spawn, nor have any eggs ever been collected for these species in the wild,” Naisbett-Jones says.

“They’re rather elusive!”

Naisbett-Jones adds that the research could go in many directions from here. However, he’d like examine the research in a geomagnetic map-sense and see if that “sense” is the means by which adult silver eels relocate to the Sargasso Sea breeding areas.

Naisbett-Jones would also like to examine if geomagnetic navigation will remain the leading hypothesis for how many long-distance migrants journey.

Currently, though, he’s researching another sea creature’s travels.

“I’m working on a project that’s looking at geomagnetic compass navigation with loggerhead sea turtles,” Naisbett-Jones says.

“Unfortunately, I can’t say much more right now, but I do hope to work with eels again soon!”

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