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Natal homing is a pattern of behavior in which animals migrate away from their geographic area of origin and then return to reproduce in the same location where they began life [ 1–3 ]. Although diverse long-distance migrants accomplish natal homing [ 1–8 ], little is known about how they do so. The enigma is epitomized by loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta), which leave their home beaches as hatchlings and migrate across entire ocean basins before returning to nest in the same coastal area where they originated [ 9, 10 ]. One hypothesis is that turtles imprint on the unique geomagnetic signature of their natal area and use this information to return [ 1 ]. Because Earth’s field changes over time, geomagnetic imprinting should cause turtles to change their nesting locations as magnetic signatures drift slightly along coastlines. To investigate, we analyzed a 19-year database of loggerhead nesting sites in the largest sea turtle rookery in North America. Here we report a strong association between the spatial distribution of turtle nests and subtle changes in Earth’s magnetic field. Nesting density increased significantly in coastal areas where magnetic signatures of adjacent beach locations converged over time, whereas nesting density decreased in places where magnetic signatures diverged. These findings confirm central predictions of the geomagnetic imprinting hypothesis and provide strong evidence that such imprinting plays an important role in natal homing in sea turtles. The results give credence to initial reports of geomagnetic imprinting in salmon [ 11, 12 ] and suggest that similar mechanisms might underlie long-distance natal homing in diverse animals.
Keywords: Loggerhead turtle, Natal homing, behavior, migration, Caretta caretta, natal area, Earth’s magnetic field changes, geomagnetic imprinting, Florida, nesting density
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