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Magnetoreception and Whale Strandings

Researchers believe that some live whale strandings result from navigational errors because often the stranded individual exhibits no signs of illness or injury and resumes normal activity when returned to sea. Thus, whale stranding data may act as a proxy for a disturbed navigational system. I hypothesized that magnetoreceptive whales would strand more often on days with large amounts of magnetic noise. To test this hypothesis, I acquired U.S. migrating gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) stranding data spanning 1985-2018 (n=186) from NOAA, and showed that there is a 2.1-fold increase in the likelihood of a live gray whale stranding on days with a high sunspot count than on low sunspot days. Increased sunspot count is strongly correlated with solar storms – sudden releases of high-energy particles from the sun that have the potential to disrupt magnetic orientation behavior when they interact with earth’s magnetosphere. To further explore this relationship, I looked at several variables affected on the earth by solar storms and found a 3.7-fold increase in the likelihood of a live stranding on days with high radio frequency (RF) noise. This is consistent with the radical-pair hypothesis of magnetoreception, which predicts that the mechanism can be disrupted by RF noise. RF noise has been shown to disrupt magnetic orientation in certain species.

This work was published in Current Biology.

You can read more about this work from the following science communication articles: