Magnetic compass orientation in European robins is dependent on both wavelength and intensity of light

J Exp Biol. 2002 Dec;205(Pt 24):3845-56. doi: 10.1242/jeb.205.24.3845.


Magnetic compass orientation in birds has been shown to be light dependent. Results from behavioural studies indicate that magnetoreception capabilities are disrupted under light of peak wavelengths longer than 565 nm, and shifts in orientation have been observed at higher light intensities (43-44x10(15) quanta s(-1) m(-2)). To investigate further the function of the avian magnetic compass with respect to wavelength and intensity of light, we carried out orientation cage experiments with juvenile European robins, caught during their first autumn migration, exposed to light of 560.5 nm (green), 567.5 nm (green-yellow) and 617 nm (red) wavelengths at three different intensities (1 mW m(-2), 5 mW m(-2) and 10 mW m(-2)). We used monochromatic light of a narrow wavelength range (half bandwidth of 9-11 nm, compared with half bandwidths ranging between 30 nm and 70 nm used in other studies) and were thereby able to examine the magnetoreception mechanism in the expected transition zone between oriented and disoriented behaviour around 565 nm in more detail. We show (1) that European robins show seasonally appropriate migratory directions under 560.5 nm light, (2) that they are completely disoriented under 567.5 nm light under a broad range of intensities, (3) that they are able to orient under 617 nm light of lower intensities, although into a direction shifted relative to the expected migratory one, and (4) that magnetoreception is intensity dependent, leading to disorientation under higher intensities. Our results support the hypothesis that birds possess a light-dependent magnetoreception system based on magnetically sensitive, antagonistically interacting spectral mechanisms, with at least one high-sensitive short-wavelength mechanism and one low-sensitive long-wavelength mechanism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Flight, Animal
  • Light*
  • Magnetics*
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Vertebrate / physiology
  • Seasons
  • Songbirds / physiology*