Ability of Birds to “See” Magnetic Fields Helps Them Navigate

A unique protein in the eyes of birds may be what grants them their navigation abilities, according to new research. An interesting finding considering how it might be able to be replicated.

The mystery behind how birds navigate might finally be solved: it’s not the iron in their beaks providing a magnetic compass, but a newly discovered protein in their eyes that lets them “see” Earth’s magnetic fields.

These findings come courtesy of two new papers – one studying robins, the other zebra finches.

The fancy eye protein is called Cry4, and it’s part of a class of proteins called cryptochromes – photoreceptors sensitive to blue light, found in both plants and animals. These proteins play a role in regulating circadian rhythms.

There’s also been evidence in recent years that, in birds, the cryptochromes in their eyes are responsible for their ability to orient themselves by detecting magnetic fields, a sense called magnetoreception.

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bird-vision - Copy

According to researchers at the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose researcher Klaus Schulten first predicted magnetoreceptive cryptochromes in 1978, they could provide a magnetic field “filter” over the bird’s field of view – like in the picture above.