back to article Birds can feel Earth's magnetic fields? Yeah, that might fly. Bioboffins find vital sense proteins

Birds can fly, sing, and, er, detect the Earth’s magnetic field behind their eyes, according to a recent paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Eggheads have long suggested birds use some sort of internal compass to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, as they navigate their way on long migrations, often …

  1. Paratrooping Parrot
    Boffin

    How would it feel?

    Would they feel a drag towards a certain direction? Do their eyes bulge towards magnetic north?

    1. Muscleguy Silver badge

      Re: How would it feel?

      The same way some of us humans have a good sense of direction. I probably use light direction/polarisation. I did have some trouble adapting moving from NZ to the UK. I'm heading back for a couple of weeks so I will see how it feels, though I'll generally be in places I know well with easily visible landmarks like hills and mountains rather than a concrete jungle.

      1. ThatOne Silver badge

        Re: How would it feel?

        > some of us humans have a good sense of direction

        Yes, but the thing is, all birds have it, not only some fortunate ones.

        On the other hand you might say that this is most likely a result of ruthless natural selection, those birds which aren't good at navigating getting lost and removing themselves from the gene pool.

        .

        BTW, somebody else finds it cute that someone called "Finch-Rodriguez" studied finches? Birds of a feather and all that?...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: How would it feel?

          "BTW, somebody else finds it cute that someone called "Finch-Rodriguez" studied finches? Birds of a feather and all that?..."

          I suspect that someone called Rodriguez did some serious, post doctoral level Finch studying at some point.

          1. MrT

            Re: How would it feel?

            "BTW, somebody else finds it cute that someone called "Finch-Rodriguez" studied finches? Birds of a feather and all that?..."

            Atticus' parents perhaps dreamed he would have a legal career...? Here's hoping they didn't have to kill any mockingbirds as part of the study.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
          Coat

          Re: How would it feel?

          "Yes, but the thing is, all birds have it, not only some fortunate ones."

          You know how you can make a magnet by pointing a length of metal, eg a screwdriver in line with the earths magnetic field and striking it? That was a hell of a "strike" 65 million years ago when birds were still dinosaurs.

          Yes, that's the one, the one with the tinfoil lining.

          1. Roland6 Silver badge

            Re: How would it feel?

            >You know how you can make a magnet by pointing a length of metal, eg a screwdriver in line with the earths magnetic field and striking it?

            Decades back! :) some bright spark had the idea that your bed's orientation with respect to the earth's magnetic field was a factor, claiming that those who slept in a north-south orientation generally had a better sense of direction than those who slept in an east-west orientation. Don't know if any research was done on this - mythbusters or real science.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: the idea that your bed's orientation with respect to the earth's magnetic field

              ... is largely determined by the orientation of your bedroom wrt the earth's magnetic field.

              In my case there is only one sane orientation, and I suppose at best there might be four, unless you have an exotically shaped (or pleasingly large) one allowing wider choice.

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: How would it feel?

              I can "feel" the direction I'm facing. I always try to align my bed north-south too (not from anything I've read, but from personal experience) - and no, I don't need a compass to do so.

              anon, 'cos you'll think I'm a freak.

              1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
                Black Helicopters

                Re: How would it feel?

                I get that "North" feel, although my normally excellent sense of direction in the UK, took a long time to re-orientate itself when I first moved to Canada.

                I'm always drawn to maps as well & when on roads I don't know, but in a area I might vaguely know from the map studies I can invariably tell where I am going to rejoin the road\find myself in a familiar location.

                Always had a weird "deja vu" sense of knowing if I'm going to go into a building at some point in my distant future.

                The best example is the office tower attached to Plymouth railway station, when dropping a friend there in 1983/4 & feeling that I would be in that building, which I turned out to do in 2001 refreshing computers for the National Rail Enquiries Service.

                Icon because Montana is due south of me.

                1. This post has been deleted by its author

            3. find users who cut cat tail

              Re: How would it feel?

              > claiming that those who slept in a north-south orientation generally had a better sense of direction than those who slept in an east-west orientation.

              Interesting, as I've been always (well, when there was a choice) sleeping in east-west oriented beds. Not west-east, mind you. That would be just wrong and I might rotate 180 degrees during the night. I have a pretty good sense of direction and tend to confuse people by diving directions using NSEW even inside buildings -- but the bed orientation thing may have more to do with some light/darkness cycle. Who knows. I am willing to participate in a rigorous scientific study, especially if it involves me sleeping a lot without disturbance...

            4. Nifty

              Re: How would it feel?

              Is this about lay lines?

          2. 's water music Silver badge
            Coat

            Re: How would it feel?

            You know how you can make a magnet by pointing a length of metal, eg a screwdriver in line with the earths magnetic field and striking it? That was a hell of a "strike" 65 million years ago when birds were still dinosaurs.

            So you are saying that this is some sort of racial memory of being successed by a meteor when dinosaurs roamed the earth? I would say that sounds legit except surely the dinos/birds would have had to be dynamised by extreme dilution. And Requel welch would be able to sense magnets too. How does that fucking work? :-)

            1. x 7 Silver badge

              Re: How would it feel?

              " And Requel welch would be able to sense magnets too. How does that fucking work? :-)"

              that bikini was held together by magnetic meteor fragments

            2. Jamie Jones Silver badge
              Happy

              Re: How would it feel?

              And Requel welch would be able to sense magnets too. How does that fucking work? :-)

              I got the reference :-)

              I asked ICP, and apparently, no-one knows! [NSFW maybe]

        3. herman Silver badge

          Re: How would it feel?

          W0t? "Finch-Rodriguez" is human? I thought he is very smart for a bird brain...

      2. DougS Silver badge

        Re: How would it feel?

        Possibly some people are sensitive to polarization of light, but if so it would only work during the day when the sun is shining. If animals could only navigate on sunny days that would be hell for birds in the UK, and nocturnal animals anywhere.

        You don't need to see polarization to be able to navigate during the day, just have a good sense of where the sun is at a given time of day, and have a good sense of time (or have a way of determining it like a watch) It would be pretty easy to rule out polarization by seeing if people who believe themselves to have a good sense of direction lose it when wearing depolarizing goggles.

        If I think about it I have a pretty good idea where the sun should be at a given time and could calculate what direction north is and so forth. I could easily believe that some people do that without being consciously aware of it, and thus have a "naturally good sense of direction".

        I remember reading one article that suggested animals might actually "see" magnetic lines in some sense, overlaying on their vision.

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: How would it feel?

          Manchester university have been running a human magneto-orientation study for years. It involved minibussing blindfolded volunteers around Manchester, making use of several roundabouts to disguise direction, then a 20-30 minute drive around. Volunteers wore a headband contains either a magnet or a piece of brass, then had to guess and mark on a clipboard oriented towards the front of the coach which way was north and which way was the university.

          I'm not sure what the results are looking like.

          1. x 7 Silver badge

            Re: How would it feel?

            presumably the wiring in the bus would dampen any magnetic field?

            1. TRT Silver badge

              Re: How would it feel?

              I don't know the details of that. When I took part I was 14 and on a school trip. They checked the bus orientation with a magnetic compass, I recall, so it couldn't have been a total wipeout. The top bit of the bus was probably mostly made of oak or ash and melamine in those days anyway!

        2. harmjschoonhoven
          Coat

          @DougS: People are sensitive to polarization of light

          People with normal vision can see the Haidinger figures. Even the degree of polarization of the blue sky 90° from the Sun is enough to see it, if you know what to look for.

          Re orientation in general:

          Alice asked the Cheshire Cat "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" "That dependes a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat. "I don't much care where --" said Alice. "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat. "--so long as I get somewhere," Alice added. "Oh, you 're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

          1. Rustbucket

            Re: @DougS: People are sensitive to polarization of light

            "People with normal vision can see the Haidinger figures. Even the degree of polarization of the blue sky 90° from the Sun is enough to see it, if you know what to look for."

            Try this instead: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haidinger%27s_brush

        3. herman Silver badge

          Re: How would it feel?

          If you can sense polarization, then you can sense here the sun is even when the sun is below the horizon. This is the origin of the "philosopher's stone" (feldspar) used to navigate in northern latitudes.

        4. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
          Headmaster

          Re: How would it feel?

          Possibly some people are sensitive to polarization of light, but if so it would only work during the day when the sun is shining.

          Sunlight is not the only natural light that is polarized. Moonlight (technically reflected sunlight) and starlight are available at night and are polarized, too. Do a search for the greater mouse-eared bat's use of polarized light for navigation for an example.

      3. StephenH

        Re: How would it feel?

        I can walk out of a building or a series of underground shopping malls and correctly know which direction it is back to my hotel or where I parked the car. When I'm in the northern hemisphere I still feel the same confidence but am usually 180 degrees out.

        There is also 1 part of Sydney (Marrickville) where I consistently lose my sense of direction and have done so for 40 years. Wonder if there is a magnetic anomaly there.

      4. Dagg

        Re: How would it feel?

        I did have some trouble adapting moving from NZ to the UK.

        Same here, strange thing was east west was ok, but north south swapped.

    2. Richard 81

      Re: How would it feel?

      It could be like the way our inner ear tells us which way is up; you do feel a sort of pull but it's barely perceptible. Since no human has this sense, it's difficult know how it would feel.

      1. Mike 16 Silver badge

        Re: How would it feel?

        Can't speak of humans, but back in the last millennium I read about a study of crawfish (under whatever name is locally used. Freshwater mini-lobsters). They apparently use externally acquired grains of sand in the equivalent of our inner-ear balance organs. Scientists with a sense of humor, or possibly just a mean streak, placed some in a tank with "sand" containing iron filings or some such. After an interval to allow the subjects to refresh their "sand", the boffins applied various magnetic fields and took notes on the subjects' attempts to right themselves.

    3. Mycho Silver badge

      Re: How would it feel?

      It would probably feel like when you're walking down a corridor and you know all the heat is coming from the left. There's no drag, just the thermoreceptors in your skin let you know it's that side.

  2. frank ly Silver badge

    re. "... and even mole rats."

    You sound surprised. Mole rats live underground and they need a good sense of direction because there's nothing more embarrassing than going around in a circle when you're digging a long tunnel.

    1. Richard Parkin

      Re: re. "... and even mole rats."

      Mole rats are not easily embarrassed - see Naked Mole Rats :-)

      1. Symon Silver badge
        WTF?

        Re: re. "... and even mole rats."

        Naked Mole Rats.

        Weird things. The only mammalian thermoconformer. No pain receptors in its skin. Can survive in very low oxygen environments. And has remarkable resistance to cancer. They can live for over 30 years.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naked_mole-rat

    2. Michael Thibault

      Re: re. "... and even mole rats."

      "... there's nothing more embarrassing than going around in a circle when you're digging a long tunnel"

      Unless you're building CERN, of course.

      I'll just leave this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1STIAm1uZ8g 8:30 and onward, ho!

      1. MrT

        Re: re. "... and even mole rats."

        CERN's circle in the ground - Alpinekat's LHC Rap

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In the 1950s it was not uncommon to attribute a "direction bump" to someone. They seemed to be able to navigate previously unknown streets without a map.

    It wasn't infallible though. Other cues might have been in play. My father got us lost in a seaside town that did not have the conventional layout of a post-railway boom town like Blackpool. He also missed a 90 degree turn off a country lane that stranded us in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday.

    In South Africa my English colleagues remarked on how often they were 180 degrees out in their sense of direction. That suggests that sun orientation was possibly a cue when they already knew the north-south layout from a street map.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "In South Africa my English colleagues remarked on how often they were 180 degrees out in their sense of direction. That suggests that sun orientation was possibly a cue when they already knew the north-south layout from a street map."

      I agree. I remember when I first went out "in the field" as a young tech. Living on the East coast, driving on the West coast caused me to head North instead of South or vice versa on a few occasions when the sea was in view. Lots of subconscious clues, subtle and not so subtle help one to orient oneself, even in an unfamiliar area, especially if you've seen a map at some point or have at least a general idea of the local geography, much of which can suddenly cause you to get lost if those clues are misleading, such as switching hemispheres or worse, being a thick fog. I once drove about 5 miles east in fog, convinced I was going west until I saw a road sign and had a very disorienting moment!

      I definitely don't have any magnetic sensing ability.

      1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        The Natural Navigator

        "Starting with a simple question - ‘Which way am I looking?’ - Tristan Gooley blends natural science, myth, folklore and the history of travel to introduce you to the rare and ancient art of finding your way using nature’s own sign-posts, from the feel of a rock to a glance at the moon."

        https://www.naturalnavigator.com/books-and-library/the-natural-navigator

        https://www.naturalnavigator.com/

        1. TRT Silver badge

          Re: The Natural Navigator

          I get totally bolloxed around South Kensington. In any other place in London, I know which way the river is and thence which way is North.

          1. macjules Silver badge

            Re: The Natural Navigator

            Easy one. If you are looking at the often vomit-coloured Lambourghinis in their showroom then you are facing South. If you are walking up towards the museums then you are facing North. If you are being swamped by several thousand French children then it is likely that you are walking West.

            FTFY

            1. TRT Silver badge

              Re: The Natural Navigator

              You see? I just pictured that and got it completely arse about tit.

              1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
                Joke

                Re: The Natural Navigator

                @macjules, TRT

                The Natural London Navigator

                There's an idea for a book if anyone is interested!

                Or even a Vulture publication to go alongside "A Geek's Guide to Britain"

  4. Korev Silver badge
    Joke

    Strange, I thought they just winged it

    1. macjules Silver badge

      Cheep shot.

      1. AndrueC Silver badge
        Joke

        Cheep shot

        Yes, but there's no need to get in a flap about it.

        1. Korev Silver badge
          Coat

          Wren they use this to help Robin houses, I think we should Thrush in to stop it...

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "Cheep shot."

        Maybe you should tweet about your feelings?

    2. Crisp Silver badge

      I hear ornithologists are all a twitter about this.

      It's certainly a feather in Atticus Pinzón-Rodríguez's cap.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      winging it

      Alright, alright, I don't want to hear another peep out of you!

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: winging it

        They use navigation beakons.

  5. Muscleguy Silver badge

    Obvious

    Of course mole rats. They can't use the sun to navigate underground so using the magnetic field makes sense. I wonder if moles have it as well?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Using the Sun to navigate...

    In Canada (for example, any northern latitude), the Sun is low enough that it gives a good hint about the direction towards South. It's a natural guidepost.

    I was in Taipei once (during summer), and the Sun was as near as makes no difference, directly overhead during the middle of the day. Useless for navigation. Combined with the Chinese signs and symmetrical bowl-shaped topography, forget it.

    1. Petalium

      Re: Using the Sun to navigate...

      Agree with you about Taipei, live here now and I constantly get lost, never happens to me in Europe.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: Using the Sun to navigate...

        I get completely confused about directions when I visit the relatives in Rio; the sun steadfastly refuses to go in the right direction and the night sky is horribly cluttered with stars in the wrong places.

        And I recall getting horribly lost on Delhi, years ago, until I discovered that the genius who printed the street plan I was using had thoughtfully placed north off to the side instead of the top of the page...

  7. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge
    Trollface

    Magnetic Puns?

    Fluxed if I can be bothered.

    1. m0rt Silver badge

      Re: Magnetic Puns?

      Your pun pole-axed me with its hilarity.

      1. Korev Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: Magnetic Puns?

        It's a steel!

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Magnetic Puns?

          There is a certain attraction to magnetic puns.

          1. Crisp Silver badge

            Re: Magnetic Puns?

            They are the best. Bar none.

            I'm sure someone else can horseshoe one more in.

  8. vtcodger Silver badge

    Mythbusters

    The Mythbusters TV show did a show of tests on the human sense of direction. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MythBusters_(2011_season)#Episode_173_%E2%80%93_"Walk_a_Straight_Line" They tried walking across an open field, swimming across a pond, and driving in a straight line while wearing blackout goggles and earplugs. Neither of the hosts could do any of those things. Their conclusion: Their sense of direction depends on visual/auditory clues.

    1. Mycho Silver badge

      Re: Mythbusters

      One theory is it has to do with polarised light. A small part of your eye can identify how light is polarised and polarisation is a good indicator of direction.

      Obviously that would go away if you cover the eyes.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Mythbusters

        A small part of your eye can identify how light is polarised and polarisation is a good indicator of direction.

        Is there any know difference between men and women in this respect? In THIS household, her perception of colours appears to be better than mine*, OTOH she can't do that stuff about navigating on "intuition"

        * "What do you mean, my red tee shirt clashes with my green corduroy flares?"

        1. Mycho Silver badge

          Re: Mythbusters

          My understanding is that there is a massive difference between individuals, probably too much to assess trends between genders without a huge study.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Polorisation

            Is rather useless if you do not have a north/south hemisphere to orientate you to the sun/timezone. On the equator, It's help full if you know it's morning/evening, but by that point, you already know where the sun it.

          2. Adrian 4 Silver badge

            Re: Mythbusters

            Obligatory (though not the usual sort) xkcd

        2. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Re: Mythbusters

          Human women get two bites of the vision cherry, as the L (Red) and M (Yellow/Green) colour receptors are encoded on the X chromosome.

          So they are more likely to have good ones than males.

          Or even multiple copies - M in particular has many variants that are slightly different. Whether they get wired up independently is an open question - more research is needed!

          S (Blue) is on chromosome 7, so insensitivity to that is rarer.

  9. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

    Wonder what effect ethanol has on the proteins?

    I could swear a few beers will eliminate whatever benefit my supposed direction proteins convey. After a very great many beers? Sometimes the next morning some poached eggs and blackened toast seems to help. Wonder if the eggs....

    1. Richard 81

      Re: Wonder what effect ethanol has on the proteins?

      Are you proposing we get a pigeon drunk, for science?

    2. terrythetech
      Pint

      Re: Wonder what effect ethanol has on the proteins?

      Funny that. In the old days of binge drinking in the student bar I used to wake in the morning in my own bed, with a sore head, and no clue how I got home.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Wonder what effect ethanol has on the proteins?

        Viagra definitely messes up blue sensitivity causing things to appear off colour/brighter/etc due to interference with red and green light sensing proteins, had personal experience with that one.

        Interestingly some older folks with eye problems have found that their symptoms improve briefly probably due to ocular pressure variance, not sure why it would cause one problem and help with another though.

        It seems that the effect can be seen as interference with ERG response.

        1. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

          Re: Wonder what effect ethanol has on the proteins?

          Interesting, I wonder what structural differences in the photo sensitive proteins cause different reactions with Viagra.

          Years ago when Imitrex (counter-migraine) came out, it was by injection only. The side effect profile was so bad patients had to stagger into the hospital and have the first shot administered while a crash cart was nearby.

          When I got it, I had the most extraordinary perceptual issues with light and sound. Not what I'd call an hallucination, bit more like acoustic and visual line noise. First at low level and then cranked to the absolute Max... Colors so bright in random spots they were intolerable. Hissing and popping noises. Huge pressure in the head, you start to think the popping is bone failing. And then... Silence. Migraine gone, some lingering nausea and fatigue. I was able to drive home that hour. But what a hell of a ride! Self injector worked for a few years, always with the same trip. Then the pills came out and work, and do not jack up your brain chemistry the same way.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Wonder what effect ethanol has on the proteins?

            https://io9.gizmodo.com/why-viagra-tints-your-vision-blue-1685176169

            It appears to cause the mainly blue/green sensitive rod cells to increase in sensitivity, causing colour shifts and blue wash effects.

            Interestingly I had a similar reaction with generic anti histamines. Stopped taking them after I essentially blacked out for 5 hours and didn't remember doing some very intricate micro-soldering and other tasks like washing up. Thought it was the day before!

            Its worth mentioning that a lot of the problems seem to be that some people get a severe reaction due to some combination of genetics and physiology, have a missing copy of a bilirubin related enzyme but that shouldn't do anything significant so I have no idea what caused it.

            1. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

              Re: Wonder what effect ethanol has on the proteins?

              Very interesting link; thanks! Strange time perception effect from the antihistamine. That being said I find working under the microscope itself has some strange effects on perception of time. I've accidentally pulled all nighters working QFN packages and repairing BGA. Suddenly I realize (1) that little hungry feeling means that I missed lunch ... dinner ... AND breakfast; and (2) wife is unhappy enough that Viagra ain't the answer to problem (3)

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Does this navigation still work if they are carrying a coconut?

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      African or European?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        African swallows are non-migratory.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          "African swallows are non-migratory."

          What? Even the ones carrying coconuts?

        2. x 7 Silver badge

          "African swallows are non-migratory."

          So where do all the swallows we see in summer come from?

        3. PNGuinn Silver badge
          Facepalm

          African or European?

          Don't be daft, AC - JB was talking about coconuts.

  11. Paul Herber

    What's so special about birds having this ability? I'm quite able to migrate daily between home and the pub - a north-south journey. I've never got lost - yet.

  12. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Boffin

    IIRC didn't they find crystals of haematite in the skulls of some bird species?

    Which would be a bit of a clue that at least some species used magnetic sensing.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Proof?

    I guess we'll have our answer when the Earth's magnetic poles flip and birds start flying north for winter!

  14. John F***ing Stepp

    Using a watch

    Covered in most survival manuals (not going to look it up) or just seeing which way the sun rises or sets. . .

    Sun sets in the west south west, that way must be north, and directly behind me must be Drackula. . .

  15. spold Bronze badge

    They don't "flock" but are sort of attracted...

    Birds of a feather stick together.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Randomness

    What would happen to a pigeon or other bird with these proteins if given Vitamin A?

    Would their navigational ability improve, and could this be used to mitigate homing pigeon lossage due to solar activity?

  17. x 7 Silver badge

    my eyes see colour differently: if I look (for instance) at white clouds against a bright blue sky, one eye sees the "white" as very pale blue, the other as very pale red.

    Same if I look at the white displayed on a projection screen. Sometimes see it on a computer monitor, but its usually not bright enough to trigger the difference

    FWIW one of my eyes is "lazy" so that may be involved in the cause

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Navy blueprint for the 21st century

    whales are always beaching themselves and dying due to our pesky military pissing about underwater and disrupting their senses.

    Instead of buying more stuff to kill everyone 10 times over maybe they should have a rapid response team to tow whales off the beaches.

    Would break up the monotony of hanging around waiting to kill millions of blameless people.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019