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The yellow stingray (Urobatis jamaicensis) can use magnetic field polarity to orient in space and solve a maze


Elasmobranch fishes (sharks, skates, and rays) have been hypothesized to use the geomagnetic field (GMF) to maintain a sense of direction as they navigate throughout their environment. However, it is difficult to test the sensory ecology and spatial orientation ability of large highly migratory fishes in the field. Therefore, we performed behavioral conditioning experiments on a small magnetically sensitive species, the yellow stingray (Urobatis jamaicensis), in the laboratory. We trained individuals to use the polarity, or the north–south direction, of the GMF as a cue to orient in space and navigate a T-maze for a food reward. Subjects were split into two groups that learned to associate the direction of magnetic north or south as the indicator of the reward location. Stingrays reached the learning criterion within a mean (± SE) of 158.6 ± 28.4 trials. Subjects were then reverse trained to use the previously unrewarded magnetic stimulus of the opposite polarity as the new cue for the reward location. Overall, the stingrays reached the reversal criterion in significantly fewer trials (120 ± 13.8) compared to the initial procedure. These data show that the yellow stingray can learn to associate changes in GMF polarity with a reward, relearn a behavioral task when the reward contingency is modified, and learn a reversal procedure faster than the initial association. These data support the idea that the yellow stingray, and perhaps other elasmobranchs, might use GMF polarity as a cue to orient and maintain a heading during navigation.

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Data availability

The datasets created during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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This research was supported by grants to KCN from the Florida Atlantic University Graduate Research and Inquiry Program Award, the Save Our Seas Foundation Small Grant, the Student Research Award from the American Elasmobranch Society, The Grant in Aid of Research from the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, the Gordon Gilbert Graduate Scholarship from the Friends of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, and the PADI Foundation Grant. We thank S. Creager, A. Murakami, E. Cave, L. Celano, J. Noble, G. Gil, B. Bowers, K. Kramer, and S. Ramirez for help with stingray collection and husbandry, and R. Stackman and M. Salmon for assistance with experimental design and animal training protocols. Animals were collected pursuant to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Special Activities License SAL 15-1413A-SR

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Correspondence to Kyle C. Newton.

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All applicable international, national, and institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Florida Atlantic University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

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Newton, K.C., Kajiura, S.M. The yellow stingray (Urobatis jamaicensis) can use magnetic field polarity to orient in space and solve a maze. Mar Biol 167, 36 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-019-3643-9

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