Many tropical butterfly species are well-known for their migratory behaviour. Although these insects can maintain a constant direction throughout the day, the physiological mechanisms of orientation are unknown. It has been argued that tropical migrant butterflies must use a time-compensated sun compass to accomplish their journey, but the crucial experimental manipulations to test this hypothesis have not been conducted. This study reports the results of clock-shift experiments performed with two species of migrating butterflies (Pieridae: Aphrissa statira and Phoebis argante) captured during flight across Lake Gatun, Panama. The observed constant flight bearing of natural controls suggests that these species are capable of performing time-compensated celestial navigation. Our clock-shift experiments suggest that a sun compass is involved. Individuals submitted to a 4 h advance shift took significantly different mean orientations on release compared with control butterflies. The direction of this difference was consistent with the use of a sun compass. The magnitude was approximately half the predicted value if the vanishing bearing of released butterflies was used as the variable to evaluate the effect of time-shifting and approximately three-quarters of that predicted if the estimated heading was the variable used. Mean vanishing bearings of control and experimental butterflies did not correspond to predicted values. This difference can be attributed largely to the combined effects of wind and handling.

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