Monday 30 December 2013

Happy New Year - The Annual Miracle

With Christmas past our minds turn to the year ahead and the annual miracle of the salmon's migration.  It's been happening every year for at least the last 500,000, during which the salmon has survived and adapted to a great ice age and some lesser ones; several iterations of global warming and cooling cycles; and most recently, the effects of human actions on temperature and the environment.   The inescapable genetic imperative of survival drives the cycle of outward travel to the best feeding grounds and the return to breed.  The individual salmon has no choice in the matter: the entire process is pre-determined by the accumulated experience of the species embedded in its cells.

80 billion cubic km of water
How many salmon?
The salmon's life from birth to departure has been extensively studied, recorded and filmed.  But once the smolt leaves the estuary for the open sea it is beyond our intellectual reach until it returns as a mature fish.  Our knowledge of the Atlantic salmon in the ocean is fragmentary.  We know roughly where they go to feed, but their navigation, route and activities along the way are largely unknown.   In relation to the volume of ocean the numbers of salmon are minute, which makes them hard to find.  Nor do we currently have any practical or affordable tracking solutions.  As a result there are plenty of theories but precious little hard research evidence.

The purpose of this post is to provide something to ponder in the dog days of the close season.  To help fill the long dark evenings it is much longer than my normal offering, and anyway it's quite a complex subject.  There's no way I can make it shorter, so please be patient and stay with me.  That said, I make no claim on great scientific knowledge, nor am I a fish or cell biologist.  By training I am a mathematician and economist.  What follows are not answers but thoughts for discussion drawn from my studies: I shall be most grateful for your comments.  

The Broad Bean
Brain section - Pacific salmon
However, in thinking about salmon we must detach ourselves from human perceptions.  The salmon does not have our type of brain in terms of size, experiential learning and storage capacity, or processing.  One quarter of its volume is dedicated to processing olfactory/smell functions.  It lacks our trillions of neural connection permutations, and so is not equipped to conduct the recall, analysis and reasoning that determine our lives. The salmon has some remarkable capabilities; few of them are intellectual; most are embedded and reflexive.

Genetic Printing

(Photo - Seymour Salmon)
The journey that the smolts make in migration is unique because none have done it before and few if any of them will survive to repeat the experience.  Unlike juvenile swallows and geese there are no adults to lead them.  Even if there were any physical waypoints in the open ocean the smolt lacks the capacity to store and order them for re-use.  Therefore I suggest that instead it may be following an environmental map embedded in its genetic material as a result of the consecutive successes of its 100,000 preceding generations.  Indeed, each smolt only exists at all as a result of those successes.  Evolution ruthlessly culled the unsuccessful navigators.  The wondrous and sobering realisation is that the very existence of today's smolt depends, not on a majority of successful events, but on an unfailing absolute 100% success rate across all 100,000 generations of its predecessors.  Moreover, the surviving strains have sustained that success rate in the face of all the adaptations demanded by the challenges of the past 500,000 years.  The odds in play are mind boggling in their enormity: nature is indeed miraculous.

No strawberries please
How is this wonder achieved?  Recent research indicates that repeated intense experiences induce heritable genetic changes.  Repeated experiments gave a sample of mice a strong aversion to the smell of strawberries.  The resultant detectable changes in DNA and behaviour were replicated in subsequent generations of mice that displayed an unprompted dislike of strawberries without previous acquaintance.  Survival and its essential precursors (fear, food and reproduction - the 3 Fs) are especially intense stimulants that we may reasonably expect to impact DNA directly, and 100,00 generations is a lot of repetition.

The Monarch Butterfly

A much-researched North American species of butterfly provides some useful insights that may help our understanding of the salmon's migration and the possible role of genetic printing.  The Monarch is native to the north eastern states of the USA, where it thrives in the warmer months.  Like many insects it only has a lifespan of a few weeks, so successive generations are born and die during the course of a summer.  The winter temperatures in Vermont too low for the Monarch to survive, so well before the start of the ski season the fourth generation heads south west to Mexico, 2,800 miles away. The destination is not just Mexico (an enormous target) but a very precisely defined group of mountains only a few miles in extent, where countless millions of Monarchs congregate to breed and die before the cycle restarts and they return to Vermont in the spring.

The journey back to Vermont
(US Government)
Clearly there can be no conventional brain memory of the route taken by each 4th generation.  This is not an intellectual exercise: the salmon's brain may only be the size of a broad bean, but the Monarch's is smaller than the eye of a fine needle.  We may therefore surmise that a 'map' of what it must do and where it has to go in order to survive, is imprinted in its genetic material.

How it navigates to its destination is another issue.  It is reasonable to suspect that the sun provides its primary orientation, but a simple sun-following regime would cause it to follow a daily series of semi-circular tracks across the USA, with an average heading of south rather than south west.  And of course it needs to head away from the sun on the return journey.  There is something much more complex in play here - not least involving time and azimuth correction - that far exceeds the Monarch's brain capacity.  On that basis the navigational data must be stored elsewhere in its body.

Salmon and Spatial Awareness

When I was a boy my grandfather told me that the salmon found its way home to spawn by detecting the special smell of its parent river.  This was and remains a widely held theory.  However, despite the extraordinary power of the salmon's sense of smell, I observed that this theory suffered from a gaping hole in its logic, in that it covered only the return leg of migration whilst leaving the smell-free outward Atlantic journey wholly unexplained. I was indeed an insufferable 10 year old and over the years my curiosity has not waned.  More recently I examined some Norwegian research data from an experiment in which they disabled the noses of a sample of salmon, which nonetheless found their way home to spawn.  The theory of smell being the key to navigation just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  Navigationally its importance appears to be in the final river stages of the return migration.  We therefore need a better theory that covers both legs of migration and works at an oceanic scale.

For the next step in the reasoning we return to North America and the migration of Pacific salmon.  Owing to the huge value of the commercial catch, the sea life of these species has been far more intensively researched than their Atlantic cousins.  Whilst perusing the scientific journals I came to the conclusion that the salmon may know where it is - what's described as spatial awareness.

The trigger for that thought was Vancouver Island.  It's 300 miles (500 Km) long and lies between migrating salmon and a very large number of spawning rivers.  There is no reasonable way that a salmon approaching from the Pacific Ocean can smell its parent river from the far side of such a big obstacle.  The river water is too diluted in the ocean to be detectable, and in any event the ocean currents flow southwards away from the salmon's direction of travel.  If the salmon makes the wrong choice between turning left or right when it meets Vancouver Island it could add  up to 500 miles (800 Km) to its migratory journey.  Bearing in mind that the main run of each species is extremely concentrated, the errant salmon risks missing the boat and hence the possible extinction of the DNA it strives to preserve.  However, the research published in the Journal of Current Biology in March 2013 indicated that the salmon made reliable decisions for getting around the Island, which suggests they have some degree of spatial awareness.  The researchers surmised that it might be based on a mixture of ocean currents and magnetic orientation.

What might be the foundations of any spatial awareness?  For an ocean going fish like the salmon we can rule out the use of physical features and landmarks employed by humans, primates and birds in their localised travels.  They just don't exist, and even where they do the salmon's range of vision is too short for this to be a viable navigational foundation: you can't navigate over hundreds of miles with a field of view of 30 feet.  The sun may be helpful but it's transient during the day and between seasons; unreliable, in that it can be obscured by clouds; and invisible underwater every night and for 3 months of the year at the northern latitudes of the salmon's feeding grounds.  There has to be something else that differs from place to place and so allows the differentiation of location.  Only 2 universal forces unaffected by water come to mind - magnetism and gravity.  The science of the latter challenges my brain and we don't know enough about its spatial characteristics (until the space survey reports in about 10 years' time) to make decent inferences that may be relevant to salmon.  Accordingly, I'll turn to magnetism, about which we now know a great deal more by courtesy of the MAGSAT project's mapping of the magnetism of the earth's surface crustal layer.


(Diagram - Morlands School)
There are 2 magnetic phenomena we need to consider.  At the largest scale our entire planet is magnetic owing to the iron content in its inner core.  The magnetic field it generates is one of our primary defences against harmful radiations emitted by the sun and other stars (the Northern Lights arise where they meet).  The field is similar to that created by a standard bar magnet - you may remember demonstrations in school science lessons with iron filings on sheets of paper displaying the field's patterns.  In fact our planet is a bit like a giant bar magnetic running vertically through the axis of rotation, albeit offset by about 10 degrees.  The regular pattern of force lines is disrupted by both large-scale and local anomalies.  The orientation of those lines is what provides us with the general indication of the direction of magnetic North as a navigational aid. 

However, we need a compass to give us that indication as we don't have a magnetic sensor system within our bodies.  There is, however, evidence to suggest that some species do have magnetic materials in their horizontally arranged spinal structures, which might arguably provide a means of orientation.  The most often quoted example is dairy cows, which when not grazing appear to orient themselves North-South, except when power lines influence the local magnetic conditions.  If this is correct then we may be observing natural orientation (direction), which is one essential component of spatial awareness.  But it doesn't meet the other component - location - which leads us to the second phenomenon, crustal magnetism.

Crustal magnetic map of the North Atlantic
There are all sorts of materials either on the earth's surface or in the shallow crustal layer that have magnetic characteristics.  Iron, cobalt and other elements are obvious examples, but the list is much longer.  For example, surface magnetism is especially strong in areas of historic areas of volcanic outflow (basalt etc) and where tectonic activity is a present or historic feature.  We now have detailed mapping of surface magnetic characteristics for  most of the globe.  What we observe is linear ridge-like features (often parallel over extended distances), shaped hot spots and edges. 

Linear magnetic phenomena near Iceland
The white gaps indicate polarity reversal
Note that the local magnetic field is offset
from the whole-earth field by about 75 degrees

When you look at the detailed maps there is a profusion of clearly identifiable local magnetic features distributed throughout the Atlantic salmon's range.  Indeed, there is a complete family of near parallel magnetic-tectonic lines in the area from the UK past Iceland to Greenland.  Their magnetic intensity declines with distance from the centre-line of the formation, and the polarity reverses between stripes.  The Reykjanes Ridge magnetic feature runs all the way from just south of Iceland to the feeding grounds where the Gulf Stream meets the Continental Shelf.  For the return journey, looking back towards the UK from Iceland you can observe unique local magnetic signatures and patterns, both coastal and inland.

GEE navigation 1943
How you found Berlin at night in a Lancaster bomber
If the salmon has the capacity to sense both local magnetic effects and the earth's magnetic field, and the relationship between them, then it would have the basis for locational spatial awareness.  The frequency, wavelength and wave forms of the 2 types are different.  Once upon a time, long before GPS, we used such dual-wave sensing for navigation.  The GEE and later DECCA systems employed radio transmissions of differing frequency and polarity, which allowed you to plot your location on maps showing the wave patterns. 

There has been ample consideration of the salmon's ability of otherwise to detect and respond to the earth's magnetic field, but this could only ever explain orientation.  The MAGSAT programme has now given us detailed imagery of local magnetic conditions, which could provide the basis for the salmon's embedded map, and thereby complete the spatial awareness riddle.   Certainly you can construct a logical hypothesis from the evidence that if salmon have magnetic sensitivity, then crustal features and the whole-earth field could give it the means of knowing where it is at sea, day or night.

Life's more problematic in the river because magnetism has very long wavelengths (about 2.5 Km for the whole earth field), which means it's not precise, give or take a few miles.  That's fine at sea when looking for Greenland, going around Vancouver Island or finding the meeting of the Gulf Stream and continental shelf, but even the Tweed is only 200 yards wide.  Of course you can use your nose for the closing stages.  But differential magnetism may good enough to lead you back towards where you spent the first part of your life, facing into the current 95+% of the time, with your horizontal spine recording the local magnetic map and adjusting your inherited DNA.  If, however, you were brought up in a hatchery and release pond with all sorts of metal in their construction, then it might just be that your magnetic map is less clear.  Could this be why reared salmon are less reliable navigators (one Tyne hatchery fish turned up in Canada and another in the Mersey)?  That's a debate for another article in the next close season.  Until then, I wish you a Happy New Year, in the hope that the 2014 season will bring a major improvement on 2013.


I wrote this article in December 2013.  On 13th May 2020 the Times reported the outcome of Canadian research into the navigation of Chinook or King salmon, which confirms my central hypothesis.

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