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This article was received by email from the Stop LFAS Group May 2005.

Whales 'led astray by magnetism'

By Dr David Whitehouse

BBC News website, science editor

Increased solar activity causing disturbances in the Earth's magnetic
field may cause whales to run aground in the North Sea, say researchers.

Analysis of whales stranded between 1712 and 2003 shows that more are
stranded when solar activity is high.

Writing in the Journal of Sea Research, scientists propose that
whales use the Earth's magnetic field to assist navigation like
homing pigeons do.

As the Sun disrupts the magnetic field whales can become confused,
they say.

Animal magnetism

The Sun goes through a cycle with an average length of about 11
years, though individual cycle lengths have ranged from eight to 17
years.

Some evidence exists to suggest that shorter cycles produce a higher
flux of radiation from the Sun.

Dr Klaus Vanselow and colleagues from the University of Kiel have
analysed the lengths of solar cycles and have found that 87 of the 97
reported sperm whale strandings over the past 300 years in the North
Sea region occurred when the length of the Sun's activity cycle was
below average.

They argue that whales may be like pigeons and dolphins in having a
magnetic sense based on small crystals of magnetite found in certain
cells.

Pigeons use such cells to sense the Earth's magnetic field to help in
their navigation.

Pigeon enthusiasts are well aware that the birds can go astray during
times of high solar activity, when disturbances in the magnetic field
confuse them.

"It may be the same for whales," Dr Vanselow told the BBC News
website. "Sperm whales migrate long distances with very little visual
clues as to where they are going. It would be unsurprising if they
too had a magnetic sense.

"We believe that our research showing that more whales are beached
during times when the Sun disrupts the Earth's magnetic field makes
it a strong possibility that they do."

The numbers of cetacean - whale, dolphin and porpoise - strandings
around the UK have doubled over the last 10 years.

Marine mammal experts say an increase in fishing activity, which
leads to more "by-catch", is a major cause of the problem.

Campaigners also claim increased noise in the oceans, coming from
ships' engines and sonar, is a significant factor in whales losing
their way.

If you find a dead stranded whale or dolphin around the UK coast,
contact:

England: 020 794 25 155 (The Natural History Museum)
Scotland: 01463 243 030 (Scottish Agricultural College)
Wales: 01348 875 000 (Marine Environmental Monitoring)

If you find a live stranded whale or dolphin around the UK coast,
contact:

Scotland: The Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit on 01261 851696 or the
SSPCA on 08707 377722
England and Wales: BDMLR on 01825 765546 or RSPCA on 0870 5555999

Story from BBC NEWS:


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