Quantum magnetic imaging of iron organelles within the pigeon cochlea

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Nov 23;118(47):e2112749118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2112749118.


The ability of pigeons to sense geomagnetic fields has been conclusively established despite a notable lack of determination of the underlying biophysical mechanisms. Quasi-spherical iron organelles previously termed "cuticulosomes" in the cochlea of pigeons have potential relevance to magnetoreception due to their location and iron composition; however, data regarding the magnetic susceptibility of these structures are currently limited. Here quantum magnetic imaging techniques are applied to characterize the magnetic properties of individual iron cuticulosomes in situ. The stray magnetic fields emanating from cuticulosomes are mapped and compared to a detailed analytical model to provide an estimate of the magnetic susceptibility of the individual particles. The images reveal the presence of superparamagnetic and ferrimagnetic domains within individual cuticulosomes and magnetic susceptibilities within the range 0.029 to 0.22. These results provide insights into the elusive physiological roles of cuticulosomes. The susceptibilities measured are not consistent with a torque-based model of magnetoreception, placing iron storage and stereocilia stabilization as the two leading putative cuticulosome functions. This work establishes quantum magnetic imaging as an important tool to complement the existing array of techniques used to screen for potential magnetic particle-based magnetoreceptor candidates.

Keywords: avian; cochlea; diamond; magnetoreception; quantum sensing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cochlea / cytology
  • Cochlea / diagnostic imaging*
  • Columbidae / physiology*
  • Diagnostic Imaging / instrumentation
  • Diagnostic Imaging / methods*
  • Iron*
  • Magnetic Fields
  • Magnetics*
  • Organelles*
  • Physical Phenomena
  • Smart Materials


  • Smart Materials
  • Iron