Mystery of how birds navigate solved, scientists flying high

16 Nov 2015

For years the actual scientific reason a bird knows where exactly it’s going has perplexed science, but a new discovery may suggest it’s to do with a little thing called protein.

The question hasn’t been solely asking how birds navigate, but many other creatures too, including turtles, wolves and worms, who all use the Earth’s magnetic field to guide themselves across the vast distances of the planet.

But what it is in their genetic makeup that allows them to sense the magnetic fields has been one of the many puzzles of the animal kingdom.

According to New Scientist, however, this puzzle might just have been solved thanks to a team from Peking University in China who have published their findings in Nature Materials.

Led by Can Xie, a team of researchers looked at a protein found in pigeons, fruit flies and butterflies while taking on board the two existing, yet competing theories, on what spurred on their magnetic sense.

High praise indeed

These two theories being that it was due to iron-binding molecules, or else a protein dubbed cryptochrome.

By screening the protein for both theories, the team said it discovered a protein that fitted all of its predictions, which it dubbed MagR, which showed that both MagR and cryptochrome proteins formed into a cylinder, with an inside filling of 20 MagR molecules surrounded by 10 cryptochromes.

The team then isolated the protein complex from pigeons and monarch butterflies, only to see that they aligned in the direction of the magnetic field.

This, the team suggests, could indicate that as a bird or other animal changes direction, these proteins will snap into position to face magnetic north, giving it its sense of direction.

Speaking to New Scientist, a neurobiologist who was not involved with the study, Steven Ruppert of the University of Massachusetts, has said that the findings are “provocative and potentially groundbreaking”, before concluding that it “took my breath away”.

Bald eagle flying image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic