Numerous models explain how cells sense and migrate towards shallow chemoattractant gradients. Studies show that an excitable signal transduction network acts as a pacemaker that controls the cytoskeleton to drive motility. Here we show that this network is required to link stimuli to actin polymerization and chemotactic motility and we distinguish the various models of chemotaxis. First, signalling activity is suppressed towards the low side in a gradient or following removal of uniform chemoattractant. Second, signalling activities display a rapid shut off and a slower adaptation during which responsiveness to subsequent test stimuli decline. Simulations of various models indicate that these properties require coupled adaptive and excitable networks. Adaptation involves a G-protein-independent inhibitor, as stimulation of cells lacking G-protein function suppresses basal activities. The salient features of the coupled networks were observed for different chemoattractants in Dictyostelium and in human neutrophils, suggesting an evolutionarily conserved mechanism for eukaryotic chemotaxis.