Navigating at Night: Fundamental Limits on the Sensitivity of Radical Pair Magnetoreception Under Dim Light

Q Rev Biophys. 2019 Oct 22;52:e9. doi: 10.1017/S0033583519000076.


Night-migratory songbirds appear to sense the direction of the Earth's magnetic field via radical pair intermediates formed photochemically in cryptochrome flavoproteins contained in photoreceptor cells in their retinas. It is an open question whether this light-dependent mechanism could be sufficiently sensitive given the low-light levels experienced by nocturnal migrants. The scarcity of available photons results in significant uncertainty in the signal generated by the magnetoreceptors distributed around the retina. Here we use results from Information Theory to obtain a lower bound estimate of the precision with which a bird could orient itself using only geomagnetic cues. Our approach bypasses the current lack of knowledge about magnetic signal transduction and processing in vivo by computing the best-case compass precision under conditions where photons are in short supply. We use this method to assess the performance of three plausible cryptochrome-derived flavin-containing radical pairs as potential magnetoreceptors.

Keywords: Cryptochrome; information theory; light-dependent magnetoreception; night-migratory songbirds; radical pair mechanism; spin dynamics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Migration / radiation effects
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / radiation effects*
  • Cryptochromes / metabolism
  • Darkness*
  • Magnetic Fields*
  • Songbirds / metabolism
  • Songbirds / physiology*


  • Cryptochromes