All mobile animals respond to gradients in signals in their environment, such as light, sound, odours and magnetic and electric fields, but it remains controversial how they might use these signals to navigate over long distances. The Earth's surface is essentially two-dimensional, so two stimuli are needed to act as coordinates for navigation. However, no environmental fields are known to be simple enough to act as perpendicular coordinates on a two-dimensional grid. Here, we propose a model for navigation in which we assume that an animal has a simplified 'cognitive map' in which environmental stimuli act as perpendicular coordinates. We then investigate how systematic deviation of the contour lines of the environmental signals from a simple orthogonal arrangement can cause errors in position determination and lead to systematic patterns of directional errors in initial homing directions taken by pigeons. The model reproduces patterns of initial orientation errors seen in previously collected data from homing pigeons, predicts that errors should increase with distance from the loft, and provides a basis for efforts to identify further sources of orientation errors made by homing pigeons.
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