Two different types of light-dependent responses to magnetic fields in birds

Curr Biol. 2005 Aug 23;15(16):1518-23. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2005.07.037.


A model of magnetoreception proposes that the avian magnetic compass is based on a radical pair mechanism, with photon absorption leading to the formation of radical pairs. Analyzing the predicted light dependency by testing migratory birds under monochromatic lights, we found that the responses of birds change with increasing intensity. The analysis of the orientation of European robins under 502 nm turquoise light revealed two types of responses depending on light intensity: under a quantal flux of 8.10(15) quanta m(-2) s(-1), the birds showed normal migratory orientation in spring as well as in autumn, relying on their inclination compass. Under brighter light of 54.10(15) quanta m(-2) s(-1), however, they showed a "fixed" tendency toward north that did not undergo the seasonal change and proved to be based on magnetic polarity, not involving the inclination compass. When birds were exposed to a weak oscillating field, which specifically interferes with radical pair processes, the inclination compass response was disrupted, whereas the response to magnetic polarity remained unaffected. These findings indicate that the normal inclination compass used for migratory orientation is based on a radical-pair mechanism, whereas the fixed direction represents a novel type of light-dependent orientation based on a mechanism of a different nature.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Migration / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Europe
  • Light*
  • Magnetics*
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Seasons
  • Songbirds / physiology*