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By Sally Adam Humans have long wondered just how migrating birds find their way across the globe. One theory suggests that the earth's magnetic field holds some answers, while it has also been postulated that the birds' own sense of smell plays a part in long-distance oceanic navigation. In a new experiment, researchers chose to track the movements of Scopoli's Shearwaters. 32 birds were split into three groups - one group made temporarily unable to smell, another carrying small magnets, and a control group. The birds were tracked by means of miniature GPS loggers as they went about their normal feeding trips. All the birds behaved normally, gaining weight and returning home to do their share of incubation. So a sense of smell doesn't appear to be necessary for effective foraging. However, although the non-smelling birds made successful trips to distant feeding grounds, they chose poorly oriented return journeys, as if unable to update their compass bearing. The orientation improved as the birds approached land and could navigate using familiar landmarks. It is thought that the birds must be using a "smell map" when out of sight of land. On the other hand, disruption of the magnetic sense of the Shearwaters (and other species in previous experiments) has not lead to any conclusive results.

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