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Anthropogenic electromagnetic noise disrupts magnetic compass orientation in a migratory bird


Electromagnetic noise is emitted everywhere humans use electronic devices. For decades, it has been hotly debated whether man-made electric and magnetic fields affect biological processes, including human health1,2,3,4,5. So far, no putative effect of anthropogenic electromagnetic noise at intensities below the guidelines adopted by the World Health Organization1,2 has withstood the test of independent replication under truly blinded experimental conditions. No effect has therefore been widely accepted as scientifically proven1,2,3,4,5,6. Here we show that migratory birds are unable to use their magnetic compass in the presence of urban electromagnetic noise. When European robins, Erithacus rubecula, were exposed to the background electromagnetic noise present in unscreened wooden huts at the University of Oldenburg campus, they could not orient using their magnetic compass. Their magnetic orientation capabilities reappeared in electrically grounded, aluminium-screened huts, which attenuated electromagnetic noise in the frequency range from 50 kHz to 5 MHz by approximately two orders of magnitude. When the grounding was removed or when broadband electromagnetic noise was deliberately generated inside the screened and grounded huts, the birds again lost their magnetic orientation capabilities. The disruptive effect of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields is not confined to a narrow frequency band and birds tested far from sources of electromagnetic noise required no screening to orient with their magnetic compass. These fully double-blinded tests document a reproducible effect of anthropogenic electromagnetic noise on the behaviour of an intact vertebrate.

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Figure 1: Magnetic compass orientation of migratory European robins tested at the University of Oldenburg requires aluminium screening.
Figure 2: Connecting and disconnecting the grounding of the screens turns on and off the birds’ magnetic compass orientation capabilities.
Figure 3: Artificially produced broadband electromagnetic noise disrupts the magnetic compass orientation of birds tested inside the grounded aluminium-screened huts.
Figure 4: The disruptive effect of broadband electromagnetic noise on magnetic compass orientation is not limited to a single narrow frequency range.
Figure 5: In a rural location, European robins show magnetic compass orientation without screening.

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We thank M. Wuschek, Rohde & Schwarz, Bundesnetzagentur, and ETS Lindgren for help with measuring the electromagnetic fields, the workshops at the University of Oldenburg, especially T. Geiger, for building equipment, etc, and a large number of Bachelors, Masters and PhD students for help in conducting the experiments. We are grateful to the following for financial support: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (QuBE: N66001-10-1-4061 to P.J.H. and H.M.), VW-Stiftung (Lichtenberg professorship to H.M.), DFG (FOR 701 and MO 1408/2-2 to H.M.), Heinz Neumüller Stiftung (to C.M.H. and S.E.), BMBF (to H.M.), the European Research Council (to P.J.H.) and the EMF Biological Research Trust (to P.J.H.).

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Authors and Affiliations



S.E. and N.-L.S. contributed equally to this work and are listed alphabetically. H.M. and N.-L.S. designed the study. S.E., N.L., C.M.H., M.Z., A.M. and D.E. performed the experiments. S.E., N.L., C.M.H., M.Z. and H.M. analysed the data. A.K., P.J.H. and N.-L.S. provided physical insight needed to properly produce and measure the electromagnetic fields. N.-L.S. and S.E. were in charge of generating the electromagnetic noise. N.-L.S. measured the electromagnetic fields. H.M., P.J.H., N.-L.S. and S.E. wrote most of the paper. All authors read and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Henrik Mouritsen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Wooden huts and experimental locations.

a, Photograph of one of the four identical wooden huts used for our experiments. b, Photograph from the inside of an experimental hut showing the aluminium screening, parts of the Merritt coil system, and the table on which the funnels were placed. The insert shows the self-cutting screws used to connect the aluminium plates. c, Simple map of the city of Oldenburg. Built-up areas are shown in grey and nature-protected areas in green. Black lines denote highways, blue denotes water. Red stars: ‘1’ indicates the location of the University campus and ‘2’ the rural location used for some of the tests. d, Map of the University of Oldenburg Wechloy Campus. 1, main University building housing the biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics institutes; 2, botanical greenhouse; 3, iron-free wooden building; 4, the locations of the four wooden huts used for our experiments; 5, ‘Next Energy’ building.

Extended Data Figure 2 Electromagnetic noise measurements in the range from 40 Hz to 32 kHz.

a, Magnetic field intensity (B). b, Electric field intensity (E). The colour coding of the traces corresponds to Fig. 4. Notice that the frequency-axis (f) is logarithmic.

Extended Data Table 1 The accumulated time-dependent magnetic field intensity summed over all the frequencies in the spectra recorded for each behavioural test condition

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Engels, S., Schneider, NL., Lefeldt, N. et al. Anthropogenic electromagnetic noise disrupts magnetic compass orientation in a migratory bird. Nature 509, 353–356 (2014).

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