Birds’ supersense to find their way home

A study by a team of scientists explains how the supersense that allows birds to orient themselves works. These animals have like a sort of built-in compass and extrasensory perception that gives them information about directions.

Scientists have long understood that birds sense the Earth's magnetic field and this sort of built-in compass gives them the information they need to orient themselves. But to find their way home, these animals would also need a map to show the direction of their destination. To be able to get to the exact location on the other side of the planet, scientists have identified that birds and insects would have an extrasensory perception, a supersense that can overcome orientation problems.

The Birds' Supersense

Xin Hao of Boxwood University in China and his colleagues have discovered an entirely new mechanism that may explain how birds move. The mechanism is based on the properties of rod-shaped proteins found in the retinas of pigeons. These proteins (called MagR) contain clusters of iron and sulfur atoms. Iron, in particular, has led biologists to believe that the molecule is sensitive to the Earth's magnetic field and thus may function as a bio-compass.

Scientists also believe that clusters of iron sulfide allow birds to orient themselves more effectively. This mechanism is based on the fact that this cluster can emit fluorescence in a spectrum consisting of three colors (a central peak and two dark side peaks). The intensity of this fluorescence and the distance between the peaks depend on two factors: the surrounding electric field and the surrounding magnetic field. Of course, the magnetic field is provided by the Earth, while birds are hypothesized to be able to generate their own internal electric field.

These species of animals would create a sort of landmark. The farther away from this point, the more the fluorescence decreases. According to Xin, thanks to this supersense, birds can move to their destinations and perceive geomagnetism in a completely new scenario. The theory of the team of scientists would also explain why, in some cases, birds have been observed to become disoriented due to a magnetic field oscillating at a particular frequency. This would happen when the speed of the vibration matches the frequency of iron sulfide atoms going to interfere with the birds' internal orientation system.

Understanding how birds and other animal species manage to move over long distances and return to their starting point is also very useful for developing new technologies for navigation. On the subject of animals, researchers are also trying to figure out what caused hundreds of birds to fall in America.

Stefania Bernardini