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Published October 2002 | Published
Journal Article Open

Magnetite-based magnetoreception in birds: the effect of a biasing field and a pulse on migratory behavior


To test the hypothesis that single domain magnetite is involved in magnetoreception, we treated Australian silvereyes Zosterops l. lateralis with a strong, brief pulse designed to alter the magnetization of single domain particles. This pulse was administered in the presence of a 1 mT biasing field, either parallel to the direction of the biasing field (PAR group) or antiparallel (ANTI group). In the case of magnetoreceptors based on freely moving single domain particles, the PAR treatment should have little effect, whereas the ANTI treatment should cause remagnetization of the magnetite particles involved in a receptor and could produce a maximum change in that receptor's output for some receptor configurations. Migratory orientation was used as a criterion to assess the effect on the receptor. Before treatment, both groups preferred their normal northerly migratory direction. Exposure to the biasing field alone did not affect their behavior. Treatment with the pulse in the presence of the biasing field caused both the PAR and the ANTI birds to show an axial preference for the east—west axis, with no difference between the two groups. Although these results are in accordance with magnetite-based magnetoreceptors playing a role in migratory orientation, they do not support the hypothesis that single domains in polarity-sensitive receptors are free to move through all solid angles. Possible interpretations, including other arrangements of single domains and superparamagnetic crystals, are discussed.

Additional Information

© 2002 The Company of Biologists Limited. Accepted 9 July 2002. Our work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (W.W.) and a UTS internal research grant (U.M.). The experiments were performed according to the laws and regulations of Australia. We acknowledge the valuable help of A. Atkins, A. Fletcher, R. Rose and the Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, with catching the test birds, and of L. Schultz with keeping the birds and performing the experiments. Thanks are also due to M. M. Walker, University of Auckland, New Zealand, and M. Winklhofer, Universität München, Germany, for useful discussions and comments.

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