Letter | Published:

Anthropogenic electromagnetic noise disrupts magnetic compass orientation in a migratory bird

Nature volume 509, pages 353356 (15 May 2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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.).

Author information

Author notes

    • Svenja Engels
    •  & Nils-Lasse Schneider

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Institut für Biologie und Umweltwissenschaften, Universität Oldenburg, D-26111 Oldenburg, Germany

    • Svenja Engels
    • , Nils-Lasse Schneider
    • , Nele Lefeldt
    • , Christine Maira Hein
    • , Manuela Zapka
    • , Andreas Michalik
    • , Dana Elbers
    •  & Henrik Mouritsen
  2. Research Centre for Neurosensory Sciences, University of Oldenburg, D-26111 Oldenburg, Germany

    • Svenja Engels
    • , Nils-Lasse Schneider
    • , Nele Lefeldt
    • , Christine Maira Hein
    • , Manuela Zapka
    • , Andreas Michalik
    • , Dana Elbers
    •  & Henrik Mouritsen
  3. Institute of Physics, University of Oldenburg, D-26111 Oldenburg, Germany

    • Achim Kittel
  4. Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford, Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory, Oxford OX1 3QZ, UK

    • P. J. Hore

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Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Henrik Mouritsen.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13290

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