Birds have GPS inbuilt into their brains. They can turn it on and off like a switch

Birds have GPS inbuilt into their brains. They can turn it on and off like a switch

Researchers have explored a region of the brain known as cluster N that birds use to detect and process Earth’s magnetic field to travel long distances.

Birds have that mechanism in their brain that helps them find Earth’s magnetic field. (Photo: Getty)

In Summary

  • Birds likely use magnetically sensitive proteins
  • They can perceive Earth’s magnetic field
  • They can turn it on or off like a switch

Earth’s magnetic field is known for protecting the planet and its inhabitants from the dangerous cosmic rays and plasma blasted off from the Sun. But this magnetic field is used innovatively by some animals for navigation like a GPS and they are capable of turning it on and off very flexibly.

A new study has now revealed that migratory birds have the ability to process or ignore magnetic information, just as we may attend to music when we are interested or tune it out when we are not, like a flick of the switch.

Researchers from the University of Western Ontario in Canada and Bowling Green State University in the US have explored a region of the brain known as cluster N that birds use to detect and process Earth’s magnetic field.

Birds
Birds don’t just use the magnetic field normally. (Photo: Getty)

The studypublished in the journal European Journal of Neurosciencestates that Cluster N is activated only when birds are motivated to migrate and presumably engage their magnetic compass.
Previous studies had revealed that birds likely use magnetically sensitive proteins called cryptochromes located in their retinas that enable sensing and signaling functions, helping them in navigating these long distances.

Led by psychology Ph.D. candidate Madeleine Brodbeck, the team studied white-throated sparrows and discovered that they were able to activate cluster N at night when they were motivated to migrate and switch it off when they were resting during the day.

“This brain region is super important for activating the geomagnetic compass, especially for songbirds when they migrate at night. Almost all previous work on this specific brain function was done at one lab in Europe, so it was great to replicate it in a North American bird like the white-throated sparrow.”

Birds
Understanding the physical mechanisms of how animals make their way around in the world is a fundamentally important question. (Photo: Getty)

The magnetic field, which is generated by the flow of molten iron in the planet’s inner core and extends out into space, is invisible to humans. But some animals have that mechanism in their brain that helps them find it as they travel long distances.

“If we want to understand bird migration or how other animals move from one place to another, we need to know how they do it. And more importantly, we need to know what we’re doing, as humans, that might influence them,” said MacDougall-Shackleton.

Scientists believe that birds don’t just use the magnetic field normally, instead, they pay attention to the Sun and the stars as cues too.

“This type of basic research informs us and lets us know the full suite of ways that animals perceive the world when they’re migrating and what we as humans need to do to minimize our impact,” MacDougall-Shackleton added.

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