Study: Pigeons can sense the Earth's magnetic field; ability might allow them to return home

CHAPEL HILL Homing pigeons have intrigued humans for many centuries through their seemingly uncanny ability to find their way home from thousands of miles away. But how they do that has remained a mystery.

Now, through a series of careful behavioral experiments in the laboratory, scientists say they have shown unequivocally for the first time that pigeons have a magnetic sense that goes beyond just a simple magnetic compass. The findings boost the possibility that pigeons -- and maybe other birds as well -- use the Earth's magnetic field to navigate just as sea turtles do.

"Because of their amazing homing ability, pigeons have been used to transport messages since early Egyptian times, and pigeon racing is a popular sport all over the world," said Dr. Cordula V. Mora, a biology fellow in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's College of Arts and Sciences. "In fact, pigeons are often called the poor man's race horse.

"The two main theories are that pigeons smell their way home

or that they have a magnetic map," Mora said. "Our work strongly supports the latter theory, which still remains to be proven in the field."

A report on the studies, which Mora did as part of her doctoral work in New Zealand, appears in the Nov. 25 issue of the journal Nature. Her co-authors are Drs. Michael Walker, Michael Davison and Martin Wild, all professors at the University of Auckland.

"This is a fascinating study in which Cordula managed to train homing pigeons to respond to magnetic fields," said Dr. Kenneth J. Lohmann, Hoggard Distinguished professor of biology at UNC. "It is important news in biology because more than a dozen attempts by others to do this over the years have all failed. Cordula is the first to find a way to make it work."

In the experiments, if the pigeons chose correctly between two platforms located in a tunnel-like chamber, they were rewarded with food, Mora said. U

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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