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  1. Nature's Compass: The Mystery of Animal Navigation | BioScience
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  3. Nature's Compass : The Mystery of Animal Navigation

The remaining chapters then reveal how animals employ similar but often very different means from humans' nautical approach to establishing their positions and discuss the wide range of available backup strategies, should any cue fail. Appropriately, much attention is given to how honeybees and homing pigeons have solved navigation problems in different ways.

Examples from a large array of taxa are used to introduce key concepts, including how magnetic maps, polarized light, and even olfactory cues facilitate navigation. The book is well illustrated with numerous figures and diagrams that are essential to understanding the often-complex material.

Interestingly, the book concludes with a discussion of how stressors, such as global climate change and anthropogenic habitat loss and deterioration, can influence migratory species and ultimately disrupt their movements. Migratory species have evolved to be less phenotypically specialized than residents, and there is evidence for greater adaptation to changing climates by migrants through changes in migratory and breeding phenology. The Goulds argue that a more serious threat to migratory species is the loss of habitat they are experiencing throughout their annual cycles.

Because of this, a species that may enjoy a protected breeding habitat may be nonetheless threatened by the destruction of its wintering or stopover habitat. Although the link between habitat loss and the general topic of animal navigation may seem tenuous, this last chapter nicely bridges the concepts of the speed of evolution of new migratory behaviors and the adaptation or lack thereof to new cues.

Understanding how animals migrate may also help our efforts to conserve them. I found few faults with Nature's Compass but would have preferred direct citations or footnotes within each chapter to reference key points.

Nature's Compass: The Mystery of Animal Navigation | BioScience

Instead, the authors opted for a general bibliography, by chapter, at the end of the book. This undoubtedly makes for a smoother presentation but may irritate the more serious student. I also found it curious that the authors mostly limited their book to imperial units of measure, with just an occasional smattering of metric. Adherence to metric units would have been more internationally and scientifically appealing.

However, these are minor quibbles and do not detract from the Goulds' impressive encapsulation of the many facets of animal navigation. I anticipate that this book will become an essential part of the collection of anyone seriously interested in animal navigation, and I imagine that it could readily serve as an important supplementary text in an undergraduate-level course on the topic. The reader will be left humbled by the complex and sophisticated ways in which other animals establish their location in relation to their destination—a stark contrast to our own poor innate abilities.

Sign Up for E-alerts. Alert me when this article is cited: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Green Roofs as Urban Ecosystems: Ecological Structures, Functions, and Services. Forecasting the Effects of Global Warming on Biodiversity. Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World: Researchers have shown that both honey bees and ants use the sun's position against an internal clock to help keep their bearings. In the absence of the sun, the insects can use patterns of polarized light.


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Polarized light is the light that vibrates in a definite pattern in one direction, rather than in all directions. Certain ants have also been shown to have a method of "step-counting," which allows them to assess distances based on stride length more about that in an upcoming post.

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Finally, a number of insects, honey bees and monarch butterflies being prominent examples, use magnetic fields for navigating. The authors review the scientific literature for vertebrates as well, from cahows that must navigate across vast expanses of water to a tiny island near Bermuda, to migrating sea turtles.

The navigation abilities of homing pigeons are featured prominently, as well as some of the details of the controversies that arose around the study of vertebrate navigation. My favorite section is an examination of the possibility of magnetic map sense in humans, which clearly and humorously points out the difficulties of experimenting with human subjects. After seven chapters about how animals navigate, the final chapter is a poignant look at why understanding how animals navigate is so critically important for conservation efforts.

Well-intentioned efforts to reintroduce threatened and endangered migratory species have little likelihood of success if they do not take into account how the animals find their way.

Nature's Compass : The Mystery of Animal Navigation

Gould and Carol Grant Gould have written other popular science books that explore the potential cognitive abilities of animals, including The Animal Mind and Animal Architects. Nature's Compass expands this interest in a new direction pun intended. If you are intrigued by animal behavior or need to brush up on your understanding of the field of animal navigation, this book will be a handy reference. Your email address will not be published. Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.