Chickens also orientate themselves by the Earth's magnetic field

July 5, 2007

40 years ago, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Wiltschko was the first to prove that migrating robins use the Earth’s magnetic field to direct themselves during migration. Their magnetic sensor showed them the course of the field lines of the Earth’s magnetic field.

This produces an inclination compass that reacts to the inclination of the Earth’s magnetic field to the surface of the Earth, thus distinguishing between “pole-wards” (the side on which the field lines incline downwards) and “equator-wards” (the side on which they incline upwards). The inbuilt compass is additionally finely tuned to the field strength of the Earth’s local magnetic field, but can also be flexibly adapted to other field strengths that the birds encounter in the course of migration.

Since that time a compass of this kind has been found in more than 20 species of birds, the majority of them being those songbirds that undertake annual migration.

An international working group under the direction of Wolfgang und Roswitha Wiltschko of Frankfurt University has now succeeded in demonstrating the presence of a magnetic sense of direction in domestic chickens as well.

For this purpose, newly hatched chicks were imprinted on a red ball which they from then on regarded as their ‘mother’. The researchers then hid the ball behind one of four screens, and taught the chickens by intensive training that the mother was always behind the screen that was in the northerly direction.

To demonstrate that the chicken senses this compass point by means of its magnetic sense of direction, the researchers set up an artificial magnetic field in an easterly direction – and the chickens did actually seek their mother behind the screen that lay to the east.

Further experiments showed that the chickens’ magnetic sensor functions very similarly to that of the robin. It also reacts to the inclination and the local field strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic sensor is probably situated in the eye, since the birds need short-wave light (such as blue light) to orientate themselves. In long-wave light above the yellow level this ability is lost in all the birds that have so far been tested. From these similarities the research group has deduced that a magnetic sense of direction could be an ability common to all birds.

Since one has to go back very far in evolutionary history to find a common ancestor for chickens and robins, this ability must have developed before the birds began to migrate. Accordingly it seems that the magnetic sense of direction was already used by primitive bird-forms to move efficiently in their environment between their nests, sleeping places, and sources of food and water.

Source: Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt

Explore further: Shift from electronics to spintronics opens up possibilities of faster data

Related Stories

Explainer: What is a neutron star?

September 1, 2015

Neutron stars are arguably the most exotic objects in the universe. Like one of those annoying friends who seemingly must overachieve in every aspect of life, neutron stars exceed in almost every category: surface gravity; ...

The gas giant Jupiter

August 26, 2015

Ever since the invention of the telescope four hundred years ago, astronomers have been fascinated by the gas giant known as Jupiter. Between it's constant, swirling clouds, its many, many moons, and its red spot, there are ...

IRIS and Hinode: A Stellar research team

August 25, 2015

Modern telescopes and satellites have helped us measure the blazing hot temperatures of the sun from afar. Mostly the temperatures follow a clear pattern: The sun produces energy by fusing hydrogen in its core, so the layers ...

Recommended for you

On soft ground? Tread lightly to stay fast

October 8, 2015

These findings, reported today, Friday 9th October, in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomechanics, offer a new insight into how animals respond to different terrain, and how robots can learn from them.

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Blue skies, frozen water detected on Pluto

October 8, 2015

Pluto has blue skies and patches of frozen water, according to the latest data out Thursday from NASA's unmanned New Horizons probe, which made a historic flyby of the dwarf planet in July.

New method facilitates research on fuel cell catalysts

October 8, 2015

While the cleaning of car exhausts is among the best known applications of catalytic processes, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Practically the entire chemical industry relies on catalytic reactions. Therefore, catalyst ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.