Use of sun compass orientation during natal dispersal in Blanding’s turtles: in situ field experiments with clock-shifting and disruption of magnetoreception

  • John D. KrenzEmail author
  • Justin D. Congdon
  • Meredith A. Schlenner
  • Michael J. Pappas
  • Bruce J. Brecke
Original Article


When hatchling freshwater turtles emerge from nests and first experience environmental stimuli, they primarily use visual cues to disperse toward nearby open horizons or far dark horizons. Within hours, hatchling Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) develop compass mechanisms to maintain their headings when the initial dispersal targets become invisible. We captured hatchling Blanding’s turtles during dispersal in natural habitat, attached a magnetic or non-magnet disk to each turtle, translocated them into an arena in a visually uniform field of corn, and measured their compass orientation (heading). Hatchlings from the magnet and no-magnet groups were evenly divided into two environmental chambers (6-h clock-shift or non-clock-shift) to create four experimental treatments. After 5 to 11 days hatchlings were re-released in the arena. If hatchlings used a time-compensated sun compass, then clock-shifting would cause a ~90° change in heading. If they used a geomagnetic compass, disruption of magnetoreception would cause wandering. If both compasses were used simultaneously or sequentially, we predicted a range of outcomes. All four treatment groups dispersed directionally during both trials, maintaining their prior headings in natural habitat except for the clock-shift treatment which changed heading ~90° as predicted. The ability of hatchlings to maintain prior headings despite the disruption of geomagnetism supports the absence, inactivity, or disregard of a geomagnetic compass. Only a time-compensated sun compass coupled with an internal clock was necessary and sufficient for hatchlings to maintain compass headings during natal dispersal when relocated from natural prairie habitat to a monoculture habitat with a relatively uniform visual horizon.

Significance statement

Individuals moving long distances (e.g., migrating birds or dispersing salamanders) often maintain their movement headings using compass orientation (i.e., a geomagnetic or time-compensated sun compass). When hatchling freshwater turtles emerge from underground terrestrial nests they initiate dispersal in search of wetlands primarily based on visual horizon cues. Because such cues often become obscured by uneven terrain or dense vegetation and because straight-line travel is more efficient and less risky, hatchlings soon develop a mechanism of compass orientation to maintain their dispersal headings. We disrupted their ability to use magnetoreception by attaching magnets to their shells, manipulated their sense of time-of-day with clock-shifting, and then monitored their dispersal in a visually uniform field of mature corn. Our results demonstrated that a sun compass was necessary and sufficient for hatchlings with dispersal experience to maintain their dispersal headings when natural environmental cues were not visible.


Biological clock Clock-shift Geomagnetic compass Natal dispersal Orientation Sun compass 



The success of this study was greatly enhanced by the late John Danckwart who graciously allowed us to create an arena in his corn field in 2012 and 2013. Abigail Armstrong, Leslie Schroeder, Robert Stewert, Amanda Sausen, Sarah Bonnell, Josephine Hartung, Steve Freedberg, Anne Yen, and Martha Sichko assisted in the field and laboratory. Michael Bottesch and Henrik Mouritsen assisted in conducting the Hotelling tests. St. Olaf College and The Nature Conservancy allowed us the use of the Weaver Dunes field station. Earlier drafts of the manuscript were improved by Nancy Dickson. Minnesota State University provided sabbatical leave to JDK during 2012.

Author contributions

Experimental design for sun compass: JDK, MAS. Experimental design for geomagnetic compass: JDK, JDC, MJP. Clock-shifting treatments: JDK, MAS. Capture, handling and care of animals, and the execution of arena trials: all authors. Analysis of data: JDK, JDC, MAS. Writing: JDK, JDC.


Research was supported by the authors and research and manuscript preparation were aided by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, U.S. Department of Energy through Financial Assistant Award No. DE-FC09-96SR18546 to the University of Georgia Research Foundation and by the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. The study was conducted under permits (13808 and 15422) from Richard Baker, Jaime Edwards, Gary Nelson, and Don Ramsden of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and permit 2007-17R from Richard Biske of The Nature Conservancy.

The methods of care and use for this study were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at Minnesota State University.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesMinnesota State UniversityMankatoUSA
  2. 2.Savannah River Ecology LaboratoryAikenUSA
  3. 3.Bar Boot RanchDouglasUSA
  4. 4.North BendUSA
  5. 5.WelchUSA

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