A protein in birds’ eyes is a magnetic field sensor, which could explain how they navigate the world.
Many birds have a sixth sense. They don’t see dead people; they detect the Earth’s magnetic field, which permits them to return to the same locations year after year during seasonal migration. Scientists are getting closer to understanding the process that our feathered friends use to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, and it includes quantum mechanics in their eyes.
A team lead by researchers from the University of Oldenburg in Germany and Oxford University investigated cryptochrome-4, a protein found in the retinas of birds. For more than two decades, scientists hypothesized that this protein acted as a magnetic sensor in birds, functioning as a small compass pointing the bird in a specific direction.
The protein takes part in chemical reactions that result in varying amounts of new molecules depending on the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. The neurons of a bird eventually respond to the amount of these chemicals in order to reorient the creature. “But, no one could validate or verify this in the lab,” said Jingjing Xu, a biologist at the University of Oldenburg in Germany.
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