The avian magnetic compass, probably based on radical pair processes, works only in a narrow functional window around the local field strength, with cryptochrome 1a as most likely receptor molecule. Radio-frequency fields in the MHz range have been shown to disrupt the birds' orientation, yet the nature of this interference is still unclear. In an immuno-histological study, we tested whether the radio-frequency fields interfere with the photoreduction of cryptochrome, but this does not seem to be the case. In behavioural studies, birds were not able to adjust to radio-frequency fields like they are able to adjust to static fields outside the normal functional range: neither a 2-h pre-exposure in a 7.0 MHz field, 480 nT, nor a 7-h pre-exposure in a 1.315 MHz field, 15 nT, allowed the birds to regain their orientation ability. This inability to adjust to radio-frequency fields suggests that these fields interfere directly with the primary processes of magnetoreception and therefore disable the avian compass as long as they are present. They do not have lasting adverse after-effects, however, as birds immediately after exposure to a radio-frequency field were able to orient in the local geomagnetic field.
Keywords: cryptochrome 1a; functional window; magnetic compass; magnetoreception; radio-frequency fields.
© 2014 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.