How Do Salmon Find Their Way Home?

Written by on February 13, 2013 in Fish, Marine Life
Sockeye salmon spawning in the Adams River, British Columbia.

Sockeye salmon spawning in the Adams River, British Columbia. Photo credit: Theinterior.

Scientists have long speculated how salmon manage to make their way back to the exact same river they were born in after traveling up to 4,000 miles and spending years in the open ocean. A new study from Oregon State University (OSU) reveals that sockeye salmon use a magnetic map to find their way back home to spawn. Scientists have suspected that animals like fish and sea turtles use magnetic fields to help in navigation, but this is the first time that a correlation has been clearly found.

“To find their way back home across thousands of kilometers of ocean, salmon imprint on the magnetic field that exists where they first enter the sea as juveniles,” explained lead author Nathan Putman of OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “Upon reaching maturity, they seek the coastal location with the same magnetic field.”

Putman and colleagues studied sockeye salmon from the Fraser River in British Columbia. These salmon, just like any other, leave their river for the ocean. Their return, however, is more challenging…

“When they attempt to return, they are confronted with a giant obstacle: Vancouver Island is blocking direct access to their river!” he said. “So the fish must make a choice: Do they use the northern inlet or the southern inlet in their detour?”

By studying 56 years of fisheries data collected since the 1950s, the researchers found that the salmons’ preference for the northern or southern route changed with the natural shifting in Earth’s magnetic field. The data showed that the salmon picked which ever direction most closely matched the magnetic value of Fraser River when they left two to four years earlier.

The magnetic field “gets them to within 50 to 100 kilometers of their own river system and then olfactory cues or some other sense kicks on,” Putman said.

In addition to shifting magnetic fields, their route also changed with water temperature. Putman points out that salmon are cold-water fish so they prefer a route with colder water.

“Salmon have to get it right because they only have one chance to make it back to their home river, so it makes sense that they may have more than one way to get there,” he said. “The magnetic field is amazingly consistent, so that is a strategy that can withstand the test of time. But they may also use the sun as a compass, track waves breaking on the beach through infrasound, and use smell.”

To learn more:

Aerial view of Fraser River.

Aerial view of Fraser River. Photo credit: Dru! via photopin cc

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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