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`Fixed-axis' magnetic orientation by an amphibian: non-shoreward-directed compass orientation, misdirected homing or positioning a magnetite-based map detector in a consistent alignment relative to the magnetic field?
John B. Phillips, S. Chris Borland, Michael J. Freake, Jacques Brassart, Joseph L. Kirschvink


Experiments were carried out to investigate the earlier prediction that prolonged exposure to long-wavelength (>500 nm) light would eliminate homing orientation by male Eastern red-spotted newts Notophthalmus viridescens. As in previous experiments, controls held in outdoor tanks under natural lighting conditions and tested in a visually uniform indoor arena under full-spectrum light were homeward oriented. As predicted, however, newts held under long-wavelength light and tested under either full-spectrum or long-wavelength light (>500 nm) failed to show consistent homeward orientation. The newts also did not orient with respect to the shore directions in the outdoor tanks in which they were held prior to testing. Unexpectedly, however, the newts exhibited bimodal orientation along a more-or-less `fixed' north-northeast—south-southwest magnetic axis. The orientation exhibited by newts tested under full-spectrum light was indistinguishable from that of newts tested under long-wavelength light, although these two wavelength conditions have previously been shown to differentially affect both shoreward compass orientation and homing orientation. To investigate the possibility that the `fixed-axis' response of the newts was mediated by a magnetoreception mechanism involving single-domain particles of magnetite, natural remanent magnetism (NRM) was measured from a subset of the newts. The distribution of NRM alignments with respect to the head—body axis of the newts was indistinguishable from random. Furthermore, there was no consistent relationship between the NRM of individual newts and their directional response in the overall sample. However, under full-spectrum, but not long-wavelength, light, the alignment of the NRM when the newts reached the 20 cm radius criterion circle in the indoor testing arena (estimated by adding the NRM alignment measured from each newt to its magnetic bearing) was non-randomly distributed. These findings are consistent with the earlier suggestion that homing newts use the light-dependent magnetic compass to align a magnetite-based `map detector' when obtaining the precise measurements necessary to derive map information from the magnetic field. However, aligning the putative map detector does not explain the fixed-axis response of newts tested under long-wavelength light. Preliminary evidence suggests that, in the absence of reliable directional information from the magnetic compass (caused by the 90° rotation of the response of the magnetic compass under long-wavelength light), newts may resort to a systematic sampling strategy to identify alignment(s) of the map detector that yields reliable magnetic field measurements.

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