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Pigeons May 'Hear' Magnetic Fields

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the for-the-birds dept.

Science 55

ananyo writes "Individual neurons in birds' brains can relay crucial information about Earth's magnetic field, possibly providing the animals with an 'internal GPS.' Pigeons' remarkable navigational feats have long been pegged to the birds' ability to sense magnetic fields, but pinning down how they do so has frustrated scientists for years. Work published in Science (abstract) shows that individual cells seem to encode information on a magnetic field's direction, intensity and polarity. The work also suggests that these signals come from a part of the inner ear called the lagena, further complicating matters for researchers in the field. The Science paper comes just days after a report in Nature (abstract) revealed that cells in pigeons' upper beaks, previously thought to be magnetoreceptors, are actually immune cells called macrophages."

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55 comments

CmdrTaco "hears" when I cum in his mouth. (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39826289)

It helps him to navigate better.

Re:CmdrTaco "hears" when I cum in his mouth. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39826387)

how does it sound?

Re:CmdrTaco "hears" when I cum in his mouth. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39826631)

It's kinda like a few squirts then a loud "splat" when it hits the back of his throat. He loves it.

Re:CmdrTaco "hears" when I cum in his mouth. (1, Funny)

newcastlejon (1483695) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826725)

how does it sound?

The same as one hand fwapping.

Re:CmdrTaco "hears" when I cum in his mouth. (2)

mikael (484) | more than 2 years ago | (#39827485)

There are audio recordings of the rapid changes in the Earth's magnetic field at points on the ground.

  http://www.ab9il.net/vlf/vlf1.html [ab9il.net]

Various events also have their own sounds:

  http://www-pw.physics.uiowa.edu/mcgreevy/ [uiowa.edu]

Re:CmdrTaco "hears" when I cum in his mouth. (2)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 2 years ago | (#39830561)

Perhaps that's why pigeons appear to be so fucking stupid; if I had that racket going on in my head all the time all the time all the time voices voices never stopping never stopping in my head never never stopping I'd go a tad scatty.

Shitting on anything that doesn't move is probably the only way to vent their frustration.

Re:CmdrTaco "hears" when I cum in his mouth. (0)

Iskender (1040286) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826971)

Man, it's been too long since last time I saw a proper old school Slashdot troll. It even uses homosexuality as the point of interest! Refreshing.

Now I just want some hot grits.

I wonder if this is the same case for sea turtles (3, Interesting)

GoodNewsJimDotCom (2244874) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826385)

People remark how the turtles can find a small location in the middle of the ocean years after they were born. As long as the Earth's magnetic poles don't radically shift, the turtles could mark a location in their mind when they're born. Then when they need to mate, the signals to their brain tell them where to go on that primal mark.

This is just a random wandering thought. If someone is more informed, feel free to enlighten me.

i am more informed (1, Funny)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 2 years ago | (#39827447)

turtles have been known to vote for obama. they are communists and muslims, and you need to cease with this idealized image of turtle innocence

Re:I wonder if this is the same case for sea turtl (2)

mikael (484) | more than 2 years ago | (#39827559)

My dad's workplace did some research into the accoustics of ocean eater. Ocean water has temperature, pressure, salinity gradients plus different types of wildlife at different latitudes and longitudes. All of these are going to allow creatures to triangulate their location.

It's like penguins that form huge colonies in the icy blizzard region. Navigating by visual landmarks is impossible in a blizzard, so they form a navigation system by constantly calling out.

Re:I wonder if this is the same case for sea turtl (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 2 years ago | (#39831677)

Ocean water has temperature, pressure, salinity gradients

No, the ocean does not have pressure gradients - pressure varies with depth and nothing else. Temperature gradients vary wildly with the seasons. Salinity gradients are very weak, and only occur where there are either a) massive inputs of fresh water, or b) massive amounts of evaporation.

So no, none of these will really work to provide navigation cues.

Re:I wonder if this is the same case for sea turtl (2)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 2 years ago | (#39828079)

As long as the Earth's magnetic poles don't radically shift, the turtles could mark a location in their mind when they're born.

You can't "mark" a location using magnetic sense - because all a compass gives you is a direction, not a position. (And a not very accurate (relatively speaking) direction at that.) On top of that, the direction varies over time. (See Magnetic Declination [wikipedia.org] .)
 
In school we all get this picture of Earth's magnetic field as a tidy and static system, when in reality it's anything but.

There is a position... Just one dimension, though (2)

F69631 (2421974) | more than 2 years ago | (#39830749)

Magnetic field has different strength in different area so you could (assuming no major changes have occurred) approximate distance from the polar region in addition to knowing the direction. Add to that a landmark or two ("2 days from the shore" or something) and you might actually have relatively good knowledge of where you are. Of course it isn't the exact spot but while I know nothing about sea turtles, I doesn't sound impossible that erring a dozen miles is acceptable and then they just use sound or whatever to locate each other after days of searching.

Re:There is a position... Just one dimension, thou (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 2 years ago | (#39831659)

Magnetic field has different strength in different area so you could (assuming no major changes have occurred) approximate distance from the polar region in addition to knowing the direction.

No you can't - because field strength does not vary linearly with distance from the polar region. Even if it did, since you can't measure East-West position with a compass - that still wouldn't work to fix a position.

Re:I wonder if this is the same case for sea turtl (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 2 years ago | (#39828181)

That is interesting. If the poles shift, then it would be likely that turtles mating spots will drift over the years. I would think that would provide some interesting clues.

Re:I wonder if this is the same case for sea turtl (2)

dissy (172727) | more than 2 years ago | (#39830009)

If you find and watch the BBC documentary "Richard Hammonds Journey To The Centre of the Planet", he visits a scientist performing experiments with turtles and magnetic fields.
(Specifically, towards the end of part 1 of the 2 parts)

They had a turtle velcroed in a vest so they could anchor it to a swing arm and let it move freely in a tank of water with full control of its flippers. The tank had boards along the outside with coiled wires which could induce a magnetic field.

By flipping the polarity and changing the magnetic field, the turtle would turn around and swim towards the other side of the tank.

The earths magnetic field is in fact many times larger than the earth itself, and while our compasses only show direction along the field lines, its possible to get your bearing north/south by the strength of the field. The field is quite uneven as well, so while it might not be possible to perform GPS levels of navigation, the strength of the field can indicate which area you are in along all directions.
Turtles use this to return to their birth place as you say, and this has been proven both by observation and by experiments.

Well worth the watch if you can locate the documentary.

Inner Ear = Hearing? (4, Informative)

ThunderBird89 (1293256) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826399)

Just because the signals originate in the inner ear, they aren't necessarily audio signals. The semicircular canals in my inner ear don't enable me to 'hear' the local gravity either.

Re:Inner Ear = Hearing? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39826465)

So, what happens when the geomagnetic poles flip?
The pigeons flip upside down?

Re:Inner Ear = Hearing? (3, Funny)

Forty Two Tenfold (1134125) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826943)

Which pigeons? European or African?

Re:Inner Ear = Hearing? (1)

flyingfsck (986395) | more than 2 years ago | (#39830273)

I wonder how many people got this MP quote?

Re:Inner Ear = Hearing? (1)

chris.alex.thomas (1718644) | more than 2 years ago | (#39830973)

why do people always have to bring politics into things??

Re:Inner Ear = Hearing? (1)

mikael (484) | more than 2 years ago | (#39827591)

Earth's magnetic field in space is really the average of all local magnetic fields in the planet. Imagine there were 20+ bar magnets, that sometimes pointed in the same direction and sometimes didn't. The magnetic field follows an inverse cubed law for strength.

Re:Inner Ear = Hearing? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39826805)

This is why I think of it as a no brainer. The way a gyroscope works is it gets a 3 dimensional vector for gravity, and a 3 dimensional vector for polar north, and combines them to know exactly where you are and what direction you're going in 3 dimensions... (acceleration but not velocity)....makes sense that your ears could do the same too since it does gravity

Re:Inner Ear = Hearing? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39827087)

I don't think that word means what you think it means.

Silly scientists (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39826445)

Any scientist that can't tell magnetoreceptor from macrophage cells should turn in his pocket protector.

Re:Silly scientists (1)

slackware 3.6 (2524328) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826807)

I don't need no stinking pocket protector. I just carry a lot of dead pens in my pocket so I look cool.

This, (1)

sdk4777 (1013597) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826479)

and they can also read my thoughts

Pretty neat cellular scale compass (1)

ace37 (2302468) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826677)

I hope we can learn from the observation and shrink our own compass and related technologies. Maybe in a century or so we'll be able to develop cellular implants, drop them on the brain, and see if and how effectively it can learn to interpret the signals.

On that note, I hope we someday figure out that an organism can directly sense something we didn't previously observe or predict. Today I doubt our capabilities and understanding are developed enough to figure that out, even if it is quite commonplace. Nature is a beautiful innovator, and we have a lot to learn from it.

pigeon repellent? (5, Interesting)

GreatRedShark (880833) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826697)

I wonder if this could lead to a magnetic alternative to the netting that's used to keep pigeon's off of balconies?
Some sort of a device that produces a magnetic field that pigeons find unpleasant...

Re:pigeon repellent? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39827151)

All I see now is a pile of frothing, flopping pigeons.

I thought this was common knowledge (-1, Redundant)

kikito (971480) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826723)

I've known since my childhood that pigeons (and other birds) had to have some kind of compass inside their heads. Migrations would be impossible without those.

Re:I thought this was common knowledge (4, Insightful)

batrick (1274632) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826797)

It is common knowledge. How it works is not.

Re:I thought this was common knowledge (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39829935)

Maybe they have GPS.

Dark Tower creepiness (1, Offtopic)

Sebastopol (189276) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826735)

Kinda reminds me of Roland following the lines in the Dark Tower series... creepy.

And vastly off topic.

-1 OT

Geomagnetic reversal (1)

domulys (1431537) | more than 2 years ago | (#39826973)

I'm curious what the birds will do the next time Earth's magnetic poles switch [wikipedia.org] . Hopefully there's a "reset" button somewhere inside that tiny brain.

Re:Geomagnetic reversal (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39827387)

They survived the last one, so it must be something they can handle.

Re:Geomagnetic reversal (3, Insightful)

blue trane (110704) | more than 2 years ago | (#39827413)

Since pigeons seem to have been around for at least 23 million years [avianweb.com] , during which perhaps 40-50 pole reversals have occurred (according to the wikipedia article), they probably have some evolutionary method of dealing with it...

Re:Geomagnetic reversal (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | more than 2 years ago | (#39829029)

Last I heard the expectation was that a magnetic reversal would take something like a century and that during which time the field would not just disappear and then reappear in the other polarity, but instead do something more akin to the poles wandering around and ending up near the opposite spin pole from their former location. While the field strength might vary substantially as well, we wouldn't be completely without a direction-indicating field (though we might have east and west poles for a while and we also might have low enough field to be a cosmic ray/solar flare hazard).

A century or three is a LOT of pigeon generations. The pigeons would not be without a magnetic navigational reference that was usable and essentially stable on a several-season basis.

Pidgin sounds funny (1)

Mister Liberty (769145) | more than 2 years ago | (#39827261)

but I didn't know it had ears of its own.
Great story!

They don't hear BBs (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39827301)

They keep coming back for more. Day after day.

GPS? (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39827459)

Individual neurons in birds' brains can relay crucial information about Earth's magnetic field, possibly providing the animals with an 'internal GPS'.

You mean compass.

Re:GPS? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39827835)

Obviously some small bird bones internally create the shape of a satellite receiving dish and some high frequency signal interpreter cells vibrate in unison with those signals firing off specialized global positioning calculation cells which then overlay the coordinates in the birds' optical cortex somewhere creating an internal visualization of where the pigeons are in relation to certain landmarks (important roosting statues, balconies, people to crap on, etc.). Could be combined with some sort of ultra high frequency inter-pigeon magnetic communication protocol to map out bread crumb distribution sites or fast food restaurants, possibly.

Re:GPS? (1)

AlienIntelligence (1184493) | more than 2 years ago | (#39828005)

Individual neurons in birds' brains can relay crucial information about Earth's magnetic field, possibly providing the animals with an 'internal GPS'.

You mean compass.

The authors found that vestibular neurons — which are linked to balance systems in the inner ear — fired differentially in response to alterations in the field’s direction, intensity and polarity, and that these cells were especially sensitive to the bandwith that covers Earth’s geo-magnetic field.

Combining information on direction, intensity and polarity could provide more than just a compass heading; it could be used to produce positional and directional information because of the way Earth's field varies in different locations. “It could theoretically be used as a GPS unit,” says Dickman.

Newp, they most definitely mean, GPS. A compass will only provide limited
directional data. GPS provides 3d data. Direction, intensity and polarity
would suffice for 3d positioning, ala GPS.

-AI

Re:GPS? (1)

Ungrounded Lightning (62228) | more than 2 years ago | (#39829215)

Newp, they most definitely mean, GPS. A compass will only provide limited directional data. GPS provides 3d data. Direction, intensity and polarity would suffice for 3d positioning, ala GPS.

Humans have long used a compass-like device called a "diping needle", "dip needle" [kenyon.edu] , or "dip circle" [wikipedia.org] to get a reading of "magnetic latitude" by measuring the angle of the earth's field relative to a horizontal plane.

Inner ears have three-axis linear and three-axis rotational accelerometers. It would hardly be surprising if, should the have magneto-sensitive neurons, these would also be three-axis. This would give the full vector direction of the field. With the sight of the horizon for a horizontal reference (which it needs for flight anyhow) a bird could get a more-than-adequate approximation of latitude from the vertical angle of the magnetic field, suitable for use in long migrations.

Getting longitude would be the hard part.

So what... (1)

stms (1132653) | more than 2 years ago | (#39828173)

Humans hear Magnetic fields [wikipedia.org] all the time.

Birds sixth sense (1)

danielpauldavis (1142767) | more than 2 years ago | (#39828413)

Evolve that one from reptiles.

Not News (1)

Internetuser1248 (1787630) | more than 2 years ago | (#39828845)

My biology teacher told me this in high school. That was more than 12 years ago. Yay someone confirmed the theory, but it is hardly tech news. In case anyone is interested and didn't know this, many plants and animals have this mechanism, but only migratory birds and a few others have it well developed enough to use it as a sense.

Re:Not News (1)

flyingfsck (986395) | more than 2 years ago | (#39830283)

Plants can hear magnetic fields? That would be news on the scale of The Day of the Triffids.

of course they do (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39829381)

Q:Do pidgeons "hear"/"see"/sense magnetic fields?
A:Yes.

Next question, please.

This might explain something else about pigeons (1)

Centurix (249778) | more than 2 years ago | (#39829719)

Not only does it explain how they get home, but also why they're in such a rush to do so. If someone were playing Jean Michel Jarre at me I'd do my best to get home as quick as I could too.

Probably not hearing (1)

Conspiracy_Of_Doves (236787) | more than 2 years ago | (#39829775)

Just because the sense organ is in the ear doesn't mean that it is associated with the sense of hearing, just like our sense of balance comes from structures in the ear, but that sense is unconnected to hearing.

I have two Pigeons, they are awesome pets! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39830113)

I have a spotted owl pigeon named Bunny and her mate a Rock-Climbing Pigeon named Ju-Ju Bean.They share a nest in our 3rd bedroom and free fly in the house with a diaper. They look rather funny with it on and it has a bell so they can't sneak around. No poop to clean up that way.

They have a roost outside our back door and we watch them everyday when letting our 3 dogs in and out to go to the bathroom. They are quiet when indoor and will coo only when disturbed or when it's mating time. They don't squawk like most other indoor birds.

They lay eggs in pairs of 2 with the 2nd one coming a day or two after the first. Then they take turns sitting on the eggs and after *exactly* 18 days she will have been the one on rotation that day and she will "get up" and discard the unhatched eggs. When she pops one out we swap it when she isn't looking for a wooden egg and toss it in the yard for the squirrels.

Beautiful circle of life. We watch Pigeons everywhere we go and avoid doing business with companies who put jagged spikes all over their lettered signs and fake owls to scare them away as if they are pests. They were here first and we should remember that. They will watch us as a species go extinct without a doubt. They watched the mighty untouchable-by-a-bird Dinosaur go by the wayside after all. We're no better.

(I'm also a programmer so it's relevant for slashdot since it's on topic.)

I remember this! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39830355)

I first learned about it form that documentary "The Core".

It's in the inner ear, so it must be hearing! (1)

Kaz Kylheku (1484) | more than 2 years ago | (#39834867)

Just the same way we hear changes in bodily orientation, thanks to the semicircular canals, which are in the inner ear.

I hear a kind of saxophone sound when spinning left about my vertical axis; in the opposite direction it takes on more of a clarinet tone.

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