A dispersive migration in the Atlantic Puffin and its implications for migratory navigation
Navigational control of avian migration is understood, largely from the study of terrestrial birds, to depend on either genetically or culturally inherited information. By tracking the individual migrations of Atlantic Puffins, Fratercula arctica, in successive years using geolocators, we describe migratory behaviour in a pelagic seabird that is apparently incompatible with this view. Puffins do not migrate to a single overwintering area, but follow a dispersive pattern of movements changing through the non-breeding period, showing great variability in travel distances and directions. Despite this within-population variability, individuals show remarkable consistency in their own migratory routes among years. This combination of complex population dispersion and individual route fidelity cannot easily be accounted for in terms of genetic inheritance of compass instructions, or cultural inheritance of traditional routes. We suggest that a mechanism of individual exploration and acquired navigational memory may provide the dominant control over Puffin migration, and potentially some other pelagic seabirds, despite the apparently featureless nature of the ocean.