Birds have an extraordinary ability to sense Earth’s magnetic field. This helps them to fly home from unfamiliar places and migrate, crossing entire continents.
This ability is referred to by scientists as “magnetoreception” and can be described as a ‘sixth sense’ that birds use in their daily lives.
Birds Have A ‘Sixth Sense’ And Can Feel Earth’s Magnetic Field
It has long been a scientific puzzle how birds can see magnetic fields, but scientists think they have an answer now.
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have identified a protein in birds’ eye called Cry4. Without this protein birds probably would not be able to orient themselves using the Earth’s magnetic field.
Cry4 is part of a class of proteins called cryptochromes, which are known to be involved in circadian rhythms, or biological sleep cycles.
According to Atticus Pinzon-Rodriguez, a doctoral student and lead author of the study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the protein’s quantum interactions could help birds sense the magnetic field.
A sensitive quantum-mechanical compass can be used regardless of the time of day.
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The findings by the Lund team were supported by another group based at the Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg in Germany, which arrived at similar results after studying the presence of Cry4 in robins.
Studies showed that not only migratory birds navigate using a magnetic compass. Even resident birds that do not migrate in the spring and autumn have a magnetic sense and navigate using their internal magnetic compass.
Interestingly, researchers also suggest that other animals, perhaps all of them may have magnetic receptors and can pick up on magnetic fields.
A lot of research remains in order to map in detail how animals discover and use the Earth’s magnetic field. What is clear is that it involves chemical reactions that interact with magnetic fields. According to Atticus Pinzón-Rodríguez, this knowledge may be of use when developing new navigation systems.