A Putative Mechanism for Magnetoreception by Electromagnetic Induction in the Pigeon Inner Ear

Curr Biol. 2019 Dec 2;29(23):4052-4059.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.09.048. Epub 2019 Nov 14.


A diverse array of vertebrate species employs the Earth's magnetic field to assist navigation. Despite compelling behavioral evidence that a magnetic sense exists, the location of the primary sensory cells and the underlying molecular mechanisms remain unknown [1]. To date, most research has focused on a light-dependent radical-pair-based concept and a system that is proposed to rely on biogenic magnetite (Fe3O4) [2, 3]. Here, we explore an overlooked hypothesis that predicts that animals detect magnetic fields by electromagnetic induction within the semicircular canals of the inner ear [4]. Employing an assay that relies on the neuronal activity marker C-FOS, we confirm that magnetic exposure results in activation of the caudal vestibular nuclei in pigeons that is independent of light [5]. We show experimentally and by physical calculations that magnetic stimulation can induce electric fields in the pigeon semicircular canals that are within the physiological range of known electroreceptive systems. Drawing on this finding, we report the presence of a splice isoform of a voltage-gated calcium channel (CaV1.3) in the pigeon inner ear that has been shown to mediate electroreception in skates and sharks [6]. We propose that pigeons detect magnetic fields by electromagnetic induction within the semicircular canals that is dependent on the presence of apically located voltage-gated cation channels in a population of electrosensory hair cells.

Keywords: Ca(V)1.3; electromagnetic; electroreception; induction; inner ear; magnetoreception; vestibular.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Columbidae / physiology*
  • Ear, Inner / physiology*
  • Magnetic Fields*
  • Sensation*