Magnetoreception in an avian brain in part mediated by inner ear lagena

Curr Biol. 2011 Mar 8;21(5):418-23. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.01.058. Epub 2011 Feb 25.


Many animals use the Earth's geomagnetic field for orientation and navigation, but the neural mechanisms underlying that ability remain enigmatic. Support for at least two avian magnetoreceptors exists, including magnetically activated photochemicals in the retina and ferrimagnetic particles in the beak. The possibility of a third magnetoreceptor in the inner ear lagena organs has been suggested. The brain must process magnetic receptor information to derive constructs representing directional heading and geosurface location. Here, we used the c-Fos transcription factor, a marker for activated neurons, to discover where in the brain computations related to a specific set of magnetic field stimulations occur. We found that neural activations in discrete brain loci known to be involved in orientation, spatial memory, and navigation may constitute a major magnetoreception pathway in birds. We also found, through ablation studies, that much of the observed pathway appears to receive magnetic information from the pigeon lagena receptor organs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Columbidae / physiology*
  • Ear, Inner / physiology*
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Magnetics*
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos / metabolism


  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-fos