The physics and neurobiology of magnetoreception

Key Points

  • Behavioural experiments have shown that diverse animals can detect the Earth's magnetic field and use it as a cue for guiding movements over both long and short distances. However, whereas receptors for most other sensory systems have been characterized and studied, primary receptors involved in detecting magnetic fields have not yet been identified with certainty. This article reviews the three main mechanisms that have been proposed to underlie magnetoreception (electromagnetic induction, chemical magnetoreception and biogenic magnetite) and evaluates the evidence for each.

  • Electromagnetic induction involves detecting small electrical currents that are generated when an animal moves through the Earth's magnetic field. This requires a well-developed electrosense. Most induction models also require the animal to live in a conductive medium such as sea water. Although sharks and a few other electrosensitive marine fishes might plausibly rely on induction, no direct evidence has yet been obtained that they do so.

  • Chemical magnetoreception involves molecular reactions, the yields of which are modified by the direction and intensity of Earth-strength magnetic fields. All proposed reactions involve electron spins in pairs of radicals. At present, however, no radical pair reaction has been identified that is affected by magnetic fields as weak as the Earth's. Evidence consistent with a radical pair mechanism includes effects of light and radio-frequency fields on magnetic orientation behaviour.

  • The magnetite hypothesis posits that crystals of the magnetic mineral magnetite transduce magnetic field energy into physical forces that can be detected by the nervous system. In several animals, magnetite has been detected in anatomical locations that have been linked to magnetoreception, but unequivocal morphological or neurophysiological evidence for magnetite-based receptors has not yet been obtained.

  • All three of the proposed mechanisms are plausible from the standpoint of physics and, at present, the available data are insufficient to confirm or refute any of them. Different animals might rely on different mechanisms. Moreover, at least a few animals might use two different magnetoreception systems, one for sensing field direction and the other for sensing field elements useful for determining geographic position. Each system might be based on separate receptors with different underlying mechanisms.

  • Most magnetoreception research has been based on behavioural studies. Sustained efforts are now needed to exploit a wider range of modern neuroscience techniques. Such undertakings might be facilitated by the discovery that magnetic sensitivity exists in several favorable model systems, including zebrafish, the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster and the mollusc Tritonia diomedea.

Abstract

Diverse animals can detect magnetic fields but little is known about how they do so. Three main hypotheses of magnetic field perception have been proposed. Electrosensitive marine fish might detect the Earth's field through electromagnetic induction, but direct evidence that induction underlies magnetoreception in such fish has not been obtained. Studies in other animals have provided evidence that is consistent with two other mechanisms: biogenic magnetite and chemical reactions that are modulated by weak magnetic fields. Despite recent advances, however, magnetoreceptors have not been identified with certainty in any animal, and the mode of transduction for the magnetic sense remains unknown.

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Figure 1: Large-scale and fine-scale structure of the Earth's magnetic field.
Figure 2: Evidence for a magnetic map in sea turtles.
Figure 3: The different magnetic properties of single-domain and superparamagnetic crystals.
Figure 4: Results of electrophysiological experiments with the bobolink bird.

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Acknowledgements

We thank P. Hore, J. Canfield and C. Lohmann for comments on drafts of the manuscript. The authors' research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Sönke Johnsen.

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Glossary

MAGNETORECEPTOR

A biological structure that can transduce the strength and/or orientation of the local magnetic field to an animal's nervous system.

GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM

(GPS). A network of artificial satellite transmitters that provide highly accurate position fixes for Earth-based, portable receivers.

ELECTROMAGNETIC INDUCTION

A current in a loop of conducting wire that is caused by a changing magnetic field in the circle formed by the loop.

BIOGENIC MAGNETITE

Magnetite (Fe3O4) synthesized by a living organism.

LORENTZ FORCE

The force exerted on a charged particle moving through a magnetic field.

PRECESSION

The relatively slow rotation of the axis of a spinning object.

BACKTRANSFER

The return of a donated electron to its donor.

PAULI EXCLUSION PRINCIPLE

Quantum mechanical principle that states, among other things, that two electrons with the same spin cannot occupy the same orbital.

RADICAL PAIR

Two charged molecules held in close proximity in solution by a cage of solvent molecules.

MICELLE

An aggregate of detergent-like molecules in solution, with hydrophilic ends facing outwards and hydrophobic ends facing inwards.

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Johnsen, S., Lohmann, K. The physics and neurobiology of magnetoreception. Nat Rev Neurosci 6, 703–712 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1745

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