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Many “Miracles”: Navigation Arose Independently Across Diverse Animal Species

Evolution News
Photo credit: Emily Rusch via Unsplash.

Biologists continue to learn about animal navigation. Some animals spend their lives in limited areas, but many travel long distances each year. Not having GPS, phone apps, or hand-held compasses, how do they get from point A to point B, if the route is hundreds or thousands of miles long? It’s not like one animal got the ability through a random mutation that was passed on through its progeny, because very different animal groups can do this: birds, reptiles, insects, and mammals. Evolutionists posit that each group gained the ability independently. That multiples the number of chance “miracles” that had to occur. Moreover, some animals navigate in water; some on land, and some in the air, but can use some of the same environmental cues.

Sea Turtles

The story of sea turtle migration features in Illustra Media’s film Living Waters. One amazing thing is that newly hatched baby turtles find the route to their feeding ground, never having been there before, swimming through trackless ocean water. This implies that a mental map of the route is inherited somehow. Cues to the route appear to include scents of the beach where they were born, landforms on the ocean bottom, and the geomagnetic field.

Previous studies had used tags to record the departure of individual turtles and their arrival at a destination. New work with GPS loggers can follow them en route. A new study indicates that some turtles wander off the route and can significantly overshoot the mark. Individuals may seem “lost” for a while, then backtrack and weave till they get oriented. This is particularly true when the targets are small islands. Scientists at Swansea University tracked female green turtles:

Since the time of Charles Darwin, scientists have marveled at sea turtles’ impressive ability to make their way — often over thousands of kilometers — through the open ocean and back to the very places where they themselves hatched years before. Now, researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on July 16 have evidence that the turtles pull off these impressive feats of navigation with only a crude map to guide them on their way, sometimes going far off course before correcting their direction. [Emphasis added.]

This should not be considered a defective design for several reasons. Looking at the big picture over time, green turtles would have gone extinct had not the system worked well. The scientists are assuming that green turtles have a one-track mind to get to the target by the shortest path, but who knows? Maybe turtles enjoy the scenic route or like to explore. Thinking critically, a scientist might also investigate if the logging mechanism somehow interfered with the turtles’ magnetic sense, which surely must be extremely sensitive to follow such a weak signal. The research, furthermore, only tested one species of sea turtle. The point is, the turtles did make it, even by the “scenic route,” and that is a wonder in itself. 

We were also surprised at the distance that some turtles migrated. Six tracked turtles travelled more than 4,000 kilometers to the east African coast, from Mozambique in the south, to as far north as Somalia. So, these turtles complete round-trip migrations of more than 8,000 kilometers to and from their nesting beaches in the Chagos Archipelago.”

The findings support the view that sea turtles have a true navigation system in the open ocean, which includes a map sense. The authors conclude, “While their routes to isolated islands are not perfect, turtles may be finding the best practical solution to a challenging navigational problem within the constraints of the acuity with which they can use navigational cues, such as the earth’s geomagnetic field.” One shouldn’t disparage a “best practical solution” to a challenging problem.

Using the Magnetic Field

The ability of animals to use Earth’s magnetic field for navigation may rely on quantum mechanical effects. Helen Matsos at Astrobiology Magazine (see Phys.org) describes how the mechanism of quantum entanglement might work in proteins called cryptochromes. 

The genesis of this sense, which is also found in birds, lobsters, rainbow trout, newts, mole-rats and other animals, as well as many plants, has long stymied researchers, but a recent study by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and the University of Oxford provides new insight into a biophysical process known as the radical pair mechanism, which may be a protein-based basis of magnetoreception.

If that is the case, how did such different organisms learn about radical pairs, electron spin and back-electron transfer? How did they find out a way to use quantum physics to do navigation?

Whales

Speaking of loggers, scientists sponsored by the American Geophysical Union attached data monitoring devices onto whales with suction cups. 

“[The device] is not large at all and it has a lot of the same things that an iPhone has: magnetometers, gyroscopes, and accelerometers to measure speed, position, and orientation, as well as GPS and cameras so we can see what the whale’s doing underwater,” said Hayden Smith, a student at Southwestern University who is presenting the new research.

Many species of whales migrate thousands of kilometers. The devices allowed researchers from Stanford University and from Southwestern University to measure the swimming efficiency of the large beasts. They studied various species, from the blue whales — the largest animals on Earth at 150 tons — to smaller Minke whales. Propulsive efficiency was found to vary differently from thrust, depending on the species, but these factors balanced out. “In general, propulsive efficiency was extremely high for all the whales,” researchers found, “around 85-90%.” That was true even for the fat humpback whales.

Incidentally, the British Antarctic Survey was happily surprised to find an “astonishing” number of blue whales at South Georgia Island near the Antarctic, reports the BBC News. Their numbers had been decimated by whaling, but now are climbing back — a big success story that marine biologists hope will continue.

Birds and Even Dogs

Here’s a brief tidbit from veteran biologist and specialist in animal navigation Nathan F. Putnam He reports in Current Biology that seabirds follow shifts in the magnetic field.

Shifts in the return locations of juvenile seabirds migrating from the Irish Sea to Argentina can be accurately predicted by changes in Earth’s magnetic field, suggesting that these birds rely on a geomagnetic map for navigation.

Birds, salmon, whales, turtles, mammals, and butterflies — how did these very diverse animals all gain the ability to navigate by the Earth’s magnetic field? Now there is even a suggestion that dogs may have this ability! Science Magazine tells about experiments with hunting dogs that were observed to run back and forth for about 20 meters along a north-south axis before finding their way back to their owner.

[Hynek] Burda thinks the dogs run along a north-south axis to figure out which way they are. “It’s the most plausible explanation,” he says. [Catherine] Lohmann says the implication is that dogs can remember their previous heading and use the reference to the magnetic compass to figure out the most direct route home. “I’m intrigued,” she says.

A particularly amazing example of homing in dogs was reported by Breitbart. A golden retriever named Cleo went missing from her new home in Kansas. A week later, she showed up on the porch of her former home, 57 miles away in Missouri. The owners are baffled about how she found her way there, which included crossing a river. The dog must have relied on multiple cues, including her keen sense of smell and perhaps the Earth’s magnetic field, to cover the distance.

How Environmental Cues Become “Information”

These animals clearly make use of cues in the environment, like geomagnetism, odors, temperature, and landforms. In a recent podcast on ID the Future, Eric Anderson explained that environmental cues do not qualify as “information” without a receiver and a processor. Saturn’s rings, for example, only contain information when a scientist measures them and makes use of the observations for a purpose. Otherwise, they are just “out there” in the world. They become informational when a being receives and uses the data, such as publishing findings about Saturn’s rings. By analogy, “food” is not informative without a complex digestive system that can utilize it, and air is not informative without lungs to breathe it in and use it for respiration. 

The animals in these stories fit that description: they come equipped with receivers and processors to take in cues and use them as information. Matsos makes a mistake in thinking that the availability of a magnetic field is enough to cause animals to emerge to utilize it, simply because it could be useful.

Magnetoreception also has astrobiological implications, especially on planets with stronger (and less atmospherically shielded) magnetic fields than Earth’s. [Astrobiologist Chris] Bialas believes that extraterrestrial organisms could use magnetoreception to find resources such as iron, or to avoid poisonous substances like Chromium (VI) salts. Organisms could use their magnetic sense to evade prey or to hunt ferric bacteria.

They “could,” but why would they? There is nothing about a magnetic field line or an odor of a beach that requires an organism to use it. Without the sensory apparatus, the organism will be oblivious to it. And even if a sensory mechanism emerged by a wild stroke of luck, the environmental cue is still useless without a complex system to interpret and use it, to say nothing of a genetic system capable of encoding it in genes and passing it on to the offspring. 

Rather than presuming that a cue in the environment somehow “causes” the animal to navigate, the scientifically reasonable approach is to focus on the equipment embedded in the animal: the sensory apparatus and brain that makes raw data in the environment useful. The ability to receive raw data from the environment, process it into information, and then act on it requires a plan and foresight. Everyone can stand in awe at the finesse of the equipment with which these creatures have been endowed.