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Published November 1988 | Published
Journal Article Open

Production of single-domain magnetite throughout life by sockeye salmon, Oncorhynchus nerka


Although single-domain particles of biogenic magnetite have been found in different species of pelagic fishes, nothing is known about when it is synthesized, or about whether the time during life when it is produced is correlated with the development of responses to magnetic field stimuli. We have investigated production of biogenic magnetite suitable for use in magnetoreception in different life stages of the sockeye salmon, Oncorhynchus nerka (Walbaum). Sockeye salmon were chosen because responses in orientation arenas to magnetic field stimuli have been demonstrated in both fry and smolt stages of this species. We found significant quantities of single-domain magnetite in connective tissue from the ethmoid region of the skull of adult (4-year-old) sockeye salmon. The ontogenetic study revealed an orderly increase in the amount of magnetic material in the same region of the skull but not in other tissues of sockeye salmon fry, yearlings and smolts. The physical properties of this material closely matched those of magnetite particles extracted from the ethmoid tissue of the adult fish. We suggest that single-domain magnetite particles suitable for use in magnetoreception are produced throughout life in the ethmoid region of the skull in sockeye salmon. Based on theoretical calculations, we conclude that there are enough particles present in the skulls of the fry to mediate their responses to magnetic field direction. By the smolt stage, the amount of magnetite present in the front of the skull is sufficient to provide the fish with a magnetoreceptor capable of detecting small changes in the intensity of the geomagnetic field. Other tissues of the salmon, such as the eye and skin, often contained ferromagnetic material, although the magnetizations of these tissues were usually more variable than in the ethmoid tissue. These deposits of unidentified magnetic material, some of which may be magnetite, appear almost exclusively in adults and so would not be useful in magnetoreception by young fish. We suggest that tissue from within the ethmoid region of the skull in pelagic fishes is the only site yet identified where magnetite suitable for use in magnetoreception is concentrated.

Additional Information

© 1988 The Company of Biologists Limited. Accepted 11 May 1988. This research was supported by a grant from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (Canada), NSF grants BNS 83-00301, PYI-8351370; BRSG funding from NIH; grants from Weyerhauser Corporation and Keck Foundation; and a NSERC postdoctoral fellowship at the Pacific Biological Station (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) to TPQ. Contribution no. 4552 from the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena California 91125, USA. We thank Dr Ronald Merrill for comments on the paper.

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