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Keywords:

  • harbor seal;
  • Phoca vitulina;
  • vision;
  • orientation;
  • astronavigation

Abstract

Astronavigation is a possible mechanism of offshore orientation in marine mammals. However, the basic prerequisite for astronavigation is to see enough stars of the night sky. This cannot be taken for granted in seals as, due to adaptations of their dioptric apparatus to the optical properties of water, seals are supposed to be myopic and astigmatic when out of the water under low light conditions. Using various real and artificial stars in a go/no-go response paradigm we therefore determined the minimum brightness at which a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) can detect stars. The dark-adapted seal was trained to look through an empty tube (“seal telescope”) and to retract its head only when a star appeared at the opposite aperture. The seal reliably detected Venus or Sirius becoming suddenly visible when the telescope was moved across the night sky. Detection thresholds were determined using artificial stars (parallel light identical to starlight coming from the universe) of predefined brightness generated by an optical system installed in front of the seal's telescope. The seal detected artificial stars down to 4.4 stellar magnitudes. Although these results cannot present evidence for astronavigation, they imply that seals should see enough stars to allow such orientation mechanisms.