High resolution anatomical mapping confirms the absence of a magnetic sense system in the rostral upper beak of pigeons

Commun Integr Biol. 2013 Jul 1;6(4):e24859. doi: 10.4161/cib.24859. Epub 2013 May 10.


The cells that are responsible for detecting magnetic fields in animals remain undiscovered. Previous studies have proposed that pigeons employ a magnetic sense system that consists of six bilateral patches of magnetite containing dendrites located in the rostral subepidermis of the upper beak. We have challenged this hypothesis arguing that clusters of iron-rich cells in this region are macrophages, not magnetosensitive neurons. Here we present additional data in support of this conclusion. We have undertaken high resolution anatomical mapping of iron-rich cells in the rostral upper beak of pigeons, excluding the possibility that a conserved six-loci magnetic sense system exists. In addition we have extended our immunohistochemical studies to a second cohort of pigeons, confirming that iron rich cells in the upper beak are positive for MHCII and CD44, which are expressed by macrophages. We argue that it is important to critically assess conclusions that have been made in the past, while keeping an open mind as the search for the magnetoreceptor continues.

Keywords: anatomical mapping; magnetite; magnetoreception; navigation; pigeons.