Objectively identifying landmark use and predicting flight trajectories of the homing pigeon using Gaussian processes.
Mann R., Freeman R., Osborne M., Garnett R., Armstrong C., Meade J., Biro D., Guilford T., Roberts S.
Pigeons home along idiosyncratic habitual routes from familiar locations. It has been suggested that memorized visual landmarks underpin this route learning. However, the inability to experimentally alter the landscape on large scales has hindered the discovery of the particular features to which birds attend. Here, we present a method for objectively classifying the most informative regions of animal paths. We apply this method to flight trajectories from homing pigeons to identify probable locations of salient visual landmarks. We construct and apply a Gaussian process model of flight trajectory generation for pigeons trained to home from specific release sites. The model shows increasing predictive power as the birds become familiar with the sites, mirroring the animal's learning process. We subsequently find that the most informative elements of the flight trajectories coincide with landscape features that have previously been suggested as important components of the homing task.