Letter

Nature 461, 1274-1277 (29 October 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08528; Received 7 August 2009; Accepted 23 September 2009

Visual but not trigeminal mediation of magnetic compass information in a migratory bird

Manuela Zapka1, Dominik Heyers1, Christine M. Hein1, Svenja Engels1, Nils-Lasse Schneider1, Jörg Hans1, Simon Weiler1, David Dreyer1, Dmitry Kishkinev1, J. Martin Wild2 & Henrik Mouritsen1

  1. AG Neurosensorik/Animal Navigation, IBU, University of Oldenburg, D-26111 Oldenburg, Germany
  2. Department of Anatomy, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1142, New Zealand

Correspondence to: Henrik Mouritsen1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to H.M. (Email: henrik.mouritsen@uni-oldenburg.de).

Magnetic compass information has a key role in bird orientation1, 2, 3, but the physiological mechanisms enabling birds to sense the Earth's magnetic field remain one of the unresolved mysteries in biology2, 4. Two biophysical mechanisms have become established as the most promising magnetodetection candidates. The iron-mineral-based hypothesis suggests that magnetic information is detected by magnetoreceptors in the upper beak and transmitted through the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve to the brain5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. The light-dependent hypothesis suggests that magnetic field direction is sensed by radical pair-forming photopigments in the eyes11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and that this visual signal is processed in cluster N, a specialized, night-time active, light-processing forebrain region16, 17, 18, 19. Here we report that European robins with bilateral lesions of cluster N are unable to show oriented magnetic-compass-guided behaviour but are able to perform sun compass and star compass orientation behaviour. In contrast, bilateral section of the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve in European robins did not influence the birds' ability to use their magnetic compass for orientation. These data show that cluster N is required for magnetic compass orientation in this species and indicate that it may be specifically involved in processing of magnetic compass information. Furthermore, the data strongly suggest that a vision-mediated mechanism underlies the magnetic compass in this migratory songbird, and that the putative iron-mineral-based receptors in the upper beak connected to the brain by the trigeminal nerve6, 7, 8 are neither necessary nor sufficient for magnetic compass orientation in European robins.

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