Surges of solar activity may cause whales to run aground, possibly by disrupting the creatures’ internal compasses, according to German scientists.
University of Kiel researchers Klaus Vaneslow and Klaus Ricklefs looked at sightings of sperm whales found beached in the North Sea between 1712 and 2003.
They compared the record with another set of historical data – astronomers’ observations of sunspots, an indicator of solar radiation.
They found that more whale strandings occurred when the sun’s activity was high.
The sun experiences cycles of activity which range from eight to 17 years, with 11 years being the average.
Short cycles are linked with periods of high energy output, while long cycles are believed to be low energy.
Changes in levels of solar radiation have a big effect on earth’s magnetic field.
The most notable events are solar flares that cause shimmering lights, called aurorae, in the magnetic fields in polar regions.
Big solar flares can also disrupt telecommunications and power lines and knock out delicate electronic circuitry on satellites.
A complete solar cycle has now been imaged by the sun-orbiting SOHO spacecraft. A solar cycle is caused by the changing magnetic field of the Sun, and varies from solar maximum, when sunspot, coronal mass ejection, and flare phenomena are most frequent, to solar minimum, when such activity is relatively infrequent.
The researchers found that of the 97 stranding events reported around the coastal countries of the North Sea over the 291 years, 90 per cent occurred when the sun cycles were below average in duration.
The Vanselow team speculate that whales may have a magnetic sense of orientation like pigeons, which are believed to navigate thanks to small magnetic crystals on their beaks.
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