Avian orientation: the pulse effect is mediated by the magnetite receptors in the upper beak

Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Jun 22;276(1665):2227-32. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0050. Epub 2009 Mar 11.


Migratory silvereyes treated with a strong magnetic pulse shift their headings by approximately 90 degrees , indicating an involvement of magnetite-based receptors in the orientation process. Structures containing superparamagnetic magnetite have been described in the inner skin at the edges of the upper beak of birds, while single-domain magnetite particles are indicated in the nasal cavity. To test which of these structures mediate the pulse effect, we subjected migratory silvereyes, Zosterops l. lateralis, to a strong pulse, and then tested their orientation, while the skin of their upper beak was anaesthetized with a local anaesthetic to temporarily deactivate the magnetite-containing structures there. After the pulse, birds without anaesthesia showed the typical shift, whereas when their beak was anaesthetized, they maintained their original headings. This indicates that the superparamagnetic magnetite-containing structures in the skin of the upper beak are most likely the magnetoreceptors that cause the change in headings observed after pulse treatment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Migration / physiology
  • Animals
  • Beak / anatomy & histology*
  • Beak / physiology*
  • Ferrosoferric Oxide*
  • Magnetics
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Passeriformes / physiology*
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / physiology*


  • Ferrosoferric Oxide