Story at a glance

  • A new study published in the journal Cell found that sharks use the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation.
  • Scientists have long hypothesized this to be true, but this is the first study to support the theory.
  • The findings explain how sharks are able to repeatedly revisit feeding grounds year after year after migrating thousands of miles.

A new study published Thursday in the journal Cell found that sharks utilize the Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves and remember migration patterns. 

This internal navigational ability allows sharks to pinpoint the same feeding grounds year after year, even over distances of thousands of miles. 

Bryan Keller, a Florida State University biologist who co-authored the study, compared the ability to "having an 'internal GPS.'" While scientists scientists have hypothesized that sharks navigated by the magnetic field, Keller’s study is the first to confirm the hypothesis.

"This means the sharks have the capability to remember a specific location and to navigate back to it," he told Insider.


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The Earth’s magnetic field stems from iron the flows near the Earth’s core, close to 2,000 miles underground, that conducts electricity. This field reaches from Earth’s outer core into space immediately surrounding the planet. 

The direction of the electromagnetic energy flow and its strength differ from location to location. Some animals, including dogs, birds and whales, can sense these differences to orient themselves and navigate where they need to go. 

In the study, Keller and his team caught 20 bonnetheads from the Gulf of Mexico off Florida’s coast and relocated them into a 10-by-10-foot tank. Generating a small magnetic field within a 3-square-foot portion of the tank, the researchers then toyed with the magnetic field’s location and strength to test if the sharks would attempt to swim in the direction they believed would orient them back to Florida’s coast, which the sharks repeatedly did. 

"This is, in my opinion,” Keller told Insider, “the best explanation for how migratory sharks successfully navigate during long-distance movements."


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Published on May 07, 2021