It seems these galactic weather patterns also interfere with whale navigation. Gray whales have one of the longest migrations patterns, traveling between 10,000 and 12,000 miles per year. These mammals make a yearly round trip between the Arctic for feeding and Mexico’s warm waters for mating. They migrate close to the shore throughout their long journey, making them relatively easy to track, but also putting them at greater risk of becoming stranded.
Though they do track the whales, scientists are still uncertain as to how gray whales navigate. The ocean has few visual locational hints compared to what’s available for land-dwelling animals. At this stage, the theory is that the whales depend on other senses, like an ability to use the planet’s magnetic field as a guiding force.
Earlier research established a relationship between whale stranding and sunspot activity. Sunspots usually appear when solar storms release a stream of energetic particles from the sun that alters the Earth’s magnetic field.
Researchers analyzed 31 years’ worth of information on gray whale stranding to learn more about how the massive creatures navigate. Nearly 200 live strandings were examined, and the whales studied were alive and showed no signs of emaciation, illness, injury, or interference from humans.
The researchers studying the stranding data to determine if radiofrequency noise or local movements of the magnetic field escalated by solar storms impacted the whales.
“I hypothesized that by looking at patterns in the spacing and timing of incidents where an animal was unable to navigate properly, we could better understand the sense as a whole,” said Jesse Granger, lead study author at Duke University.
Granger’s study was published in Current Biology, and the research team ascertained that more strandings happened on days with high solar activity. The team wanted to find out if it was caused by magnetic field shifts or an interruption in the animal’s ability to feel the magnetic field. Either way, it seems the whales pick up false navigational data, eventually resulting in stranding.
Granger likened the issue to what might happen if your Satnav took you to the wrong location. “Is it that the solar storms are messing up the receptor itself – the whale thinks it is on 4th Street but has just gone blind?”
Solar storms cause an upsurge in radiofrequency noise, and whale stranding patterns match the radiofrequency noise patterns. Granger explained that the impact of solar storms on a gray whale’s magnetic sensor could be caused by their senses, not wrong information.
“So, to put this back into the earlier metaphor, the big secondary finding of this paper is that it is possible that the reason the whales are stranding so much more often when there are solar storms is [that] they have gone blind, rather than that their internal GPS is giving them false information,” she said.
The researchers emphasized that this isn’t the sole reason for stranding, and it isn’t definite evidence for magneto-receptive sensors in whales.
The study is one of the first indications that these whales rely on a type of magnetic sense for traveling. That said, Granger and her colleagues want to study other whale species to establish whether this is a pattern.
“When those results came up negative, I was flummoxed. It wasn’t until one of my co-authors mentioned that solar storms also produce high amounts of radio-frequency noise, and I remembered that radio-frequency noise can disrupt magnetic orientation, that things finally started to click together,” Granger said.