Navigational Abilities of Adult and Experienced Homing Pigeons Deprived of Olfactory or Trigeminally Mediated Magnetic Information

J Exp Biol. 2009 Oct 1;212(19):3119-24. doi: 10.1242/jeb.031864.


Anatomical evidence and conditioning experiments have suggested that magnetoreceptors innervated by the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve are located in the upper beak of homing pigeons. Following these findings it has been proposed that the trigeminally-mediated magnetorececeptors are able to detect magnetic field intensity, which might be useful for a position finding mechanism for pigeons homing from unfamiliar locations. Recent data have shown that, in inexperienced pigeons, section of the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve does not impair navigational abilities. Similarly, no impairment was observed if the trigeminal section was performed on young pigeons, before they have had the opportunity to learn a navigational map. By contrast, section of the olfactory nerve either in adult inexperienced pigeons or in young birds before map learning, disrupted their homing performance. Nevertheless, because a magnetic map mechanism requires training flights for learning the magnetic gradient of the territory around the loft, the question remains as to whether the navigational performance of adult experienced pigeons can be affected by lack of magnetic information. To answer this question we extensively group-trained adult pigeons and then surgically deprived them of either olfactory or trigeminally mediated magnetic information, prior to testing their navigational abilities. The birds deprived of trigeminally mediated magnetic information displayed similar navigational abilities as intact control pigeons, whereas the olfactory-deprived pigeons were dramatically impaired in homing. Our data show that even in trained adult pigeons, olfactory cues are needed for homing from unfamiliar locations and that the lack of magnetic information does not affect navigational abilities of experienced adult homing pigeons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Columbidae / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Flight, Animal / physiology
  • Homing Behavior / physiology*
  • Magnetics
  • Olfactory Nerve / physiology*
  • Orientation
  • Smell / physiology
  • Trigeminal Nerve / physiology*