Pigeons Navigate With GPS? Science Measures Reaction to Magnetic Field

Pigeons use the Earth's magnetic field to navigate - Image courtesy of NASA

Scientists have figured out how a pigeon’s brain figures out where it is, and how to get home – it’s an internal GPS, or global positioning system, that uses the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate – and it’s probably better than the one you’ve got in your SUV.

According to researchers Le-Qing Wu and David Dickman, neurons in a pigeon’s brain use the Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves. No mean feat, but how did the scientists figure this out? They took seven pigeons, placed them in a completely dark room, and used a device to cancel Earth’s natural magnetic field. Then, they generated an artificial magnetic field, and measured the brain activity of the birds. As they changed the magnetic field, they found neurons in the bird’s brains firing in response.

Decoded Science had the opportunity to ask David Dickman, PhD, of  Baylor College of Medicine a few questions about this study. We asked Dr. Dickman about the inspiration for his study, and he responded as follows:

We work on the inner ear and it’s function. A previous study (Harada et al., Acta Otol, 2001) suggested that the inner ear may be involved in magnetoreception and we followed their lead.

Click to Read Page Two: Neuroscience and Magnetic Fields – Future Studies

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