Press release

Atmospheric turbulence: a fundamental ingredient in the recipe for long-range avian navigation


Previous studies have shown that seabirds are able to navigate with accuracy over large expanses of visually featureless ocean but the mechanism behind olfactory avian navigation has until now remained elusive. Using a large number of flight patterns of three species of shearwater an interdisciplinary international team led by the Cnr-Isc showed that atmospheric turbulence is not merely a nuisance as previously believed but plays a fundamental role in generating the observed flight patterns of seabirds.

An international team from Italy (Cnr-Isc and Ispra), Portugal (MARE) and UK (Rothamsted Research) have recently published an innovative paper in Scientific Reports about the mechanisms of bird navigation which indicates that atmospheric turbulence is a fundamental ingredient in the recipe for long-range avian navigation. Atmospheric turbulence is very complicated but can be characterized by complex mathematics. We found these complex mathematical signatures of turbulence in the flight patterns of three species of shearwaters flying over the Atlantic Ocean and over the Mediterranean Sea. This clearly demonstrates that the flight patterns are determined by windborne odours.

“A non-invasive approach to the study of avian navigation is seen with suspicion by the community of experimental biologists”, explains Stefano Focardi of the Cnr-Isc who has coordinated the research, “and marked as descriptive because it is believed that only experimental manipulations can reveal the true nature of the behavioral mechanisms at work. However experimental studies on wild species are limited by small sample sizes while the new approach enables us to investigate much larger numbers of birds with minimal manipulations” added Stefano Focardi ”so addressing  the worries of many citizens for animals’ welfare”.

The theoretical argument behind these results is based upon a mathematically rigorous and general description of olfactory-cued navigation in the presence of atmospheric turbulence. The paper shows that the proposed mechanism of avian navigation are well supported by data and opens the possibility to extend the analysis of olfactory avian navigation to many more species and ecological conditions.

The research has linked movement patterns to underlying generative mechanisms. Our novel analysis is consistent with the results of more traditional, non-mathematical, invasive methods which have also provided evidence for olfactory-cued navigation in wild birds. But our study is the first to show how the flight patterns of wild birds are sculpted and crafted by the odours that surround us.

In brief

Who: Institute for complex systems (Cnr-Isc) in FlorenceFirenze, Ispra, Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre (MARE), Rothamsted Research.

What: ‘Olfactory-cued navigation in shearwaters: linking movement patterns to mechanisms’, Scientific Reports , 8, Article number: 11590 (2018),

For further information: Stefano Focardi, Cnr-Isc, tel. +39/055/5226693 e mail:

Ufficio stampa:
Francesca Gorini
Ufficio stampa Cnr

Capo ufficio stampa:
Marco Ferrazzoli
06 4993 3383