Letter | Published:

Resonance effects indicate a radical-pair mechanism for avian magnetic compass

Nature volume 429, pages 177180 (13 May 2004) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Migratory birds are known to use the geomagnetic field as a source of compass information1,2. There are two competing hypotheses for the primary process underlying the avian magnetic compass, one involving magnetite3,4,5, the other a magnetically sensitive chemical reaction6,7,8. Here we show that oscillating magnetic fields disrupt the magnetic orientation behaviour of migratory birds. Robins were disoriented when exposed to a vertically aligned broadband (0.1–10 MHz) or a single-frequency (7-MHz) field in addition to the geomagnetic field. Moreover, in the 7-MHz oscillating field, this effect depended on the angle between the oscillating and the geomagnetic fields. The birds exhibited seasonally appropriate migratory orientation when the oscillating field was parallel to the geomagnetic field, but were disoriented when it was presented at a 24° or 48° angle. These results are consistent with a resonance effect on singlet–triplet transitions and suggest a magnetic compass based on a radical-pair mechanism7,8.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Deutsche Telekom AG, especially H. Küpper, T. Loppnow and B. Marx for technical assistance, and F. Galera, S. Hilmer, C. Koschella and S. Münzner for their help with conducting the experiments. J.B.P. acknowledges the National Science Foundation for financial support. Our work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (W.W.) and the Fetzer Institute (T.R.).

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Affiliations

  1. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Irvine, California 92697-4575, USA

    • Thorsten Ritz
  2. Zoologisches Institut, Fachbereich Biologie und Informatik, J.W. Goethe-Universität, Siesmayerstrasse 70, D-60054 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

    • Peter Thalau
    • , Roswitha Wiltschko
    •  & Wolfgang Wiltschko
  3. Department of Biology, 2119 Derring Hall, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, USA

    • John B. Phillips

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Thorsten Ritz.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02534

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