When migrating, sockeye salmon typically swim up to 4,000 miles into the ocean and then, years later, navigate back to the upstream reaches of the rivers in which they were born to spawn their young. Scientists, the fishing community and lay people have long wondered how salmon find their way to their home rivers over such epic distances.
How do they do that?
A new study, published in this week's issue of Current Biology and partly funded by the National Science Foundation, suggests that salmon find their home rivers by sensing the rivers' unique magnetic signature.
As part of the study, the research team used data from more than 56 years of catches in salmon fisheries to identify the routes that salmon had taken from their most northerly destinations, which were probably near Alaska or the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific Ocean, to the mouth of their home river--the Fraser River in British Columbia, Canada. This data was compared to the intensity of the Earth's magnetic field at pivotal locations in the salmon's migratory route.
The Earth has a magnetic field that weakens with proximity to the equator and distance from the poles and gradually changes on a yearly basis. Therefore, the intensity of the magnetosphere in any particular location is unique and differs slightly from year to year.
Because Vancouver Island is located directly in front of the Fraser River's mouth, it blocks direct access to the river's mouth from the Pacific Ocean. However, salmon may slip behind Vancouver Island and reach the river's mouth from the north via the Queen Charlotte Strait or from the south via the Juan De Fuca Strait.
Results from this study showed that the intensity of the magnetic field largely predicted which route the salmon used to detour around Vancouver Island; in any given year, the salmon were more likely to take whichever route had a magnetic signature that most closely matched that of the Fras
|Contact: Lily Whiteman|
National Science Foundation