From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published April 12, 2012 07:57 AM

How do Pigeons Navigate

Research has been performed with the intention of discovering how pigeons can find their way back from distant places they have never visited before. Most researchers believe that homing ability is based on a map and compass model, with the compass feature allowing birds to orient and the map feature allowing birds to determine their location relative to a goal site (home loft). Some researchers believe that the map mechanism relies on the ability of birds to detect the Earth's magnetic field. The theory that pigeons’ famous skill at navigation is down to iron-rich nerve cells in their beaks has been disproved by a new study published in Nature. The study shows that iron-rich cells in the pigeon beak are in fact specialized white blood cells, called macrophages. This finding, which shatters the established dogma, puts the field back on course as the search for magnetic cells continues.

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"The mystery of how animals detect magnetic fields has just got more mysterious" said Dr David Keays who led the study.

Many animals use magnetic orientation based on the Earth's magnetic field to find their way home. This is usually used together with other methods, such as a sun compass, as in bird migration and in the case of turtles. This is also commonly used when no other methods are available, as in the case of lobsters, which live underwater, and mole rats, which home through their underground burrows. The problem is exactly how this is done.

Dr Keays continued: "We had hoped to find magnetic nerve cells, but unexpectedly we found thousands of macrophages, each filled with tiny balls of iron."

Macrophages are a type of white blood cell that play a vital role in defending against infection and re-cycling iron from red blood cells. They’re unlikely to be involved in magnetic sensing as they are not excitable cells and cannot produce electrical signals which could be registered by neurons and therefore influence the pigeon’s behavior.

Dr Keays’s lab, based at the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, worked together with Dr Shaw from the University of Western Australia, and Drs Lythgoe and Riegler from the UCL Center for Advanced Biomedical Imaging in London.

"We employed state-of-the-art imaging techniques to visualize and map the location of iron-filled cells in the pigeon beak" said Dr Mark Lythgoe.

The search for the actual mechanism that allows migratory birds, and many other animals, to respond to the Earth's magnetic field and navigate around their environment remains an intriguing puzzle to be solved.

"We have no idea how big the puzzle is or what the picture looks like, but today we’ve been able to remove those pieces that just didn’t fit," said Dr Keays.

For further information go to UCL

Pigeon image via Wikipedia

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