Spontaneous directional preferences in taxonomically and ecologically distinct organisms: examining cues and underlying mechanisms
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The focus of this research was the spontaneous magnetic alignment responses of animals. We show that snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) and crayfish (Cambarus sciotensis) spontaneously align their body axes relative to the magnetic field. In snapping turtles, this response is sensitive to low-level radio frequency fields, consistent with a mechanism involving a light-dependent radical pair mechanism. Findings from the turtle experiments also suggest that the Earth's magnetic field plays an important role in encoding spatial information in novel surroundings, and may help to organize multiple locales into a 'mental map' of familiar space. Given the importance of magnetic input in many aspects of spatial behavior, another important finding was that magnetic alignment of yearling turtles was disrupted by high levels of maternally transferred mercury, an industrial waste product found at high levels in some fresh water ecosystems. In crayfish, we investigated the effects of ectosymbionts (Annelida: Branchiobdellida) on magnetic alignment responses. Interestingly, the response of crayfish to magnetic cues parallels the complex symbiotic interaction between crayfish and their ectosymbiotic worms, which changes from mutualistic to parasitic with increasing worm density. Our working hypothesis was that these changes in spatial behavior may increase or decrease contact to other crayfish, and therefore increase or decrease transmission rates. Next, to address the ontogeny of the SMA, we attempted to replicate an earlier study showing a possible magnetic alignment response in chicken embryos. Although chicken embryos did show non-random alignment, we were not able to find a magnetic effect. Alignment is also an important feature of animal constructions and is very likely to have fitness consequences, which we explored in woodpecker cavity alignments in a meta-analysis of available global data. The latitudinal and continental pattern in 23 species of woodpeckers suggests that an alignment response can have the proximate function to regulate microclimate in the cavity and therefore, presumably, optimize incubation temperatures and increase hatching success. Overall, the presented findings show how experimental and observational studies of spontaneous alignment behavior can provide insight into the ecology and sensory biology of a wide range of animals.
- Doctoral Dissertations