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Abstract

The avian magnetic compass works as an inclination compass. Instead of using the polarity of the magnetic field to determine direction, birds use the inclination of the dip angle. Consequently, transequatorial migrants have to reverse their response to the magnetic compass after crossing the magnetic equator. When confronted with an artificial magnetic field that reverses the vertical component of the magnetic field, migrants such as the bobolink reverse their headings relative to magnetic north even in the presence of visual cues such as stellar patterns. Bobolinks, which breed in temperate North America and winter in temperate South America, were tested in a planetarium under fixed star patterns in a series of magnetic fields incremented each night from the natural field in the northern hemisphere through an artificial horizontal field to an artificial southern hemisphere magnetic field. The birds maintained a constant heading throughout the experiment and did not reverse direction after the simulated crossing of the magnetic equator as previous experiments predicted. In nature, this response would have meant continuation of their migration flight across the equator and into the opposite hemisphere. The switch from “equatorward” orientation to “poleward” orientation is probably triggered by experience with a horizontal magnetic field and/or visual cues. The ability to maintain an accurate heading while crossing the magnetic equator may be based on the use of visual cues such as the stars.