Tag Archives: Sea Turtle

New study: another example of convergence, this time for geomagnetic navigation

We have to start this post with the definition of convergence in biology.

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

It is the opposite of divergent evolution, where related species evolve different traits.

On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. In cultural evolution, convergent evolution is the development of similar cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. An example of convergent evolution is the similar nature of the flight/wings of insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats.

All four serve the same function and are similar in structure, but each evolved independently.

And now, Evolution News has a story about a new discovery.

Turtles have the ability to navigate by sensing magnetic isolines:

Science Magazine gives a brief review of the findings:

Much like shifting sand, magnetic fields slide slightly over time, and their strength also increases as one moves away from the equator, akin to latitude.This property gives each stretch of coast a unique geographic marker, known as an isoline. The team found that in years when these magnetic isolines moved apart, the turtle nests spread out over a larger area — by 1 or 2 kilometers. Conversely, when isolines converged, the nests squeezed into a smaller patch of beach, suggesting the turtles follow shifting magnetic tracks to their favorite nests. The findings also argue that a magnetic address is imprinted on loggerhead turtles at birth to point the way home.

But so do salmon, and other birds, fishes and mammals:

Remarkably, salmon show this same ability. Brothers and Lohman write:

In a previous study, the migratory route of salmon approaching their natal river was shown to vary with subtle changes in the Earth’s field. Whereas the endpoint of the salmon spawning migration was presumably the same regardless of route, our findings demonstrate for the first time a relationship between changes in Earth’s magnetic field and the locations where long-distance migrants return to reproduce.

Joining the contenders for this skill set are more unrelated animal types:

… our results provide the strongest evidence to date that sea turtles find their nesting areas at least in part by navigating to unique magnetic signatures along the coast. In addition, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that turtles accomplish natal homing largely on the basis of magnetic navigation and geomagnetic imprinting. These findings, in combination with recent studies on Pacific salmon, suggest that similar mechanisms might underlie natal homing in diverse long-distance migrants such as fishes, birds, and mammals.

So here we have a highly-precise navigational ability, able to cue on very faint properties in the earth’s magnetic field, then on olfaction, and possibly on “other supplemental local cues” to find home across thousands of miles. The sensory “instruments” involved are integrated so that they are able to coordinate their functions for the same goal. Furthermore, the baby turtles, with their tiny brains, must have the ability to memorize the natal signatures of odors and magnetic field properties at birth, then recall those memories years later as large adults. (Sea turtles return about every two years to lay eggs.)

That would be a conundrum enough to explain by unguided processes like natural selection. But then, adding to the difficulty for Darwinism, similar abilities are found in distantly related animals like fish, birds, and mammals. Even if a Darwinian could show a possible line of descent from fish to mammal, the abilities involved would have been lost and regained multiple times, because not all fish, birds, and mammals use magnetic navigation. Given the complexities of the sensory systems involved, this would represent a case of “convergent evolution” on steroids. If the origin of this capability in one type of animal is highly implausible by mutation and selection, how about four times or more?

A design perspective, by contrast, would expect that unrelated animals on a common planet would share similar capabilities for their needs. The earth’s magnetic field is global. It isn’t surprising that very different animals would be designed to use that feature of the earth.

How can it be that animals that have no recent common ancestor can have evolved this remarkable ability independently? The best explanation of this convergence is common design, not common descent.

More posts on convergence