Ratios among atmospheric trace gases together with winds imply exploitable information for bird navigation: a model elucidating experimental results
A model of avian goal-oriented navigation is described that is based on two empirical findings building a bridge from ornithology to atmospheric chemistry. (1) To orient their courses homeward from distant unfamiliar areas, homing pigeons require long-term exposure to undisturbed winds at the home site and olfactory access to the environmental air at home and abroad. (2) Above Germany, ratios among some atmospheric trace gases vary along differently oriented spatial gradients as well as depending on wind direction. The model emulates finding (1) by utilising the analysed air samples on which finding (2) is based. Starting with an available set of 46 omnipresent compounds, virtual pigeons determine the profile of relative weights among them at each of 96 sites regularly distributed around a central home site within a radius of 200 km and compare this profile with corresponding profiles determined at home under varying wind conditions. Referring to particular similarities and dissimilarities depending on home-wind direction, they try to estimate, at each site, the compass direction they should fly in order to approach home. To make the model work, an iterative algorithm imitates evolution by modifying sensitivity to the individual compounds stepwise at random. In the course of thousands of trial-and-error steps it gradually improves homeward orientation by selecting smaller sets of most useful and optimally weighted substances from whose proportional configurations at home and abroad it finally derives navigational performances similar to those accomplished by real pigeons. It is concluded that the dynamic chemical atmosphere most likely contains sufficient spatial information for home-finding over hundreds of kilometres of unfamiliar terrain. The underlying chemo-atmospheric processes remain to be clarified.