Researchers at Oxford in England and the University of Oldenburg in Germany showed under laboratory conditions how a special substance in the eyes of birds, which is believed to owe their navigational abilities, interacts with the magnetic field. The result was published in the journal Nature.
Although the meaning of the so-called megnation reception, by which various organisms can orient themselves by sensing the Earth’s magnetic field, has not yet been proven – recent research suggests a solution by which the biological background is restored.
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There are four different types of cryptochrome in birds’ eyes, discovered by Margaret Ahmed at the Sorbonne in Paris in the early 1990s. Scientists say the latter, codenamed Cry4, is attached to a magnetic field-sensitive molecule. It is a protein whose center of reaction has a free radical atom, that is, an electron with a free valence, on its outer shell. This electron is coupled to another similar electron during a phenomenon called entanglement in quantum physics and it glows with different intensity when exposed to blue light, thus drawing magnetic lines of force.
A slight upset was that the cryptochromes tested in the lab were not originally from birds but from human cells. So scientists tested cryptochromes from different birds, the migratory robin, the non-migratory but knowledgeable pigeon, and the domestic chicken in the lab with blue light and magnets, with success.
Photo: Ken Jack/Getty Images Hungary
An important finding is that robin’s cryptochrome was more sensitive to magnetic field than other birds. This would support that the robin is able to orient itself with its magnetic sense during migration, unlike a chicken, pigeon or human.
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Margaret Ahmed, the discoverers of cryptochrome, praised her ideas about how the substance works, but at the same time believed that magnetic reception does not work on the basis of studies of animal behavior. Robin is well versed not only in blue but also in light green, and even in complete darkness. In addition, the presence of biological compasses has previously been demonstrated in pigeons and chickens.
Critical opinions suggest that the role of Cry4 may be resolved by studying the behavior of cryptic birds that are barred, rather than in vitro, alive.