Pigeons Have Built-in GPS System That Uses Earth's Magnetic Field

Posted on April 29, 2012

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) found a group of 53 cells in the brainstems of pigeons, dubbed "GPS Neurons," that react to the Earth's magnetic field. Scientists believe these neurons help pigeons navigate. However, they have not found the source of the GPS receptor in pigeons that sends data to these cells. A Discover Magazine article says the researchers believe the sensor could be located within the inner ear.

J. David Dickman, professor of neuroscience, at BCM, says, "We know birds and many other animals can sense the magnetic force; behavioral studies show that birds fly along magnetic routes during seasonal changes. It is still unknown what exactly acts as a receptor within the bird; however, in our current study we are able to show how neurons in the pigeon's brain encode magnetic field direction and intensity. This is how we believe birds know their position on the surface of the Earth."

The researchers used electrodes in one brain area, known as the vestibular nuclei, to record activity when the bird was exposed to a changing magnetic field.

Dickman says, "The cells responded to the angle and intensity of the magnetic field. Some cells were more sensitive depending on what direction we aimed the magnetic field around the bird's head."

NMA News animated the pigeon GPS neuron news. Take a look:

The research was published here in the journal, Science.

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