Quantum robins lead the way

Jan 21, 2011 by Pete Wilton
European robin. Photo: Wikimedia/Erik Vikne.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Did you know that the humble robin uses quantum physics?

Researchers have been investigating the mechanism which enables birds to detect the Earth's magnetic field to help them navigate over vast distances. This ability, known as magnetoreception, has been linked to chemical reactions inside birds' eyes.

Now a team from Oxford University and Singapore believe that this 'compass' is making use of something called .

In a forthcoming article in the team report how they anaylsed data from an experiment by Oxford and Frankfurt scientists on robins.

The experiment showed that the used by robins could be distrupted by extremely small levels of magnetic 'noise'. When this noise, a tiny oscillating magnetic field, was introduced it completely disabled the Robins' compass sense which then returned to normal once the noise was removed - good news for robins which have to navigate on the long migration route to Scandinavia and Africa and back every year.

In their analysis the Oxford/Singapore team show that only a system with components operating at a would be this sensitive to such a small amount of noise.

'Quantum information technology is a field of physics aimed at harnessing some of the deepest phenomena in physics to create wholly new forms of technology, such as computers and communication systems,' said Erik Gauger of Oxford University's Department of Materials, an author of the paper.

'Progress in this area is proving to be very difficult because the phenomena that must be harnessed are extremely delicate. It would normally be thought almost inconceivable that a living organism could have evolved similar capabilities.'

Co-author Simon Benjamin from Singapore explained: 'Coherent quantum states decay very rapidly, so that the challenge is to hold on to them for as long as possible. The in the bird's compass can evidently keep these states alive for at least 100 microseconds, probably much longer.'

'While this sounds like a short time, the best comparable artificial molecules can only manage 80 microseconds at room temperature. And that's in ideal laboratory conditions.'

Erik and Simon now hope that further research into how birds harness these quantum states could enable researchers to mimic them and help in the development of practical quantum technologies.

Explore further: Team finds elusive quantum transformations near absolute zero

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User comments : 10

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jselin
4 / 5 (4) Jan 21, 2011
In their analysis the Oxford/Singapore team show that only a system with components operating at a quantum level would be this sensitive to such a small amount of noise.


Or due to the lack of natural magnetic noise the birds never developed the capacity to handle it even at "low" levels. If you suddenly perceived up as both up and down simultaneously for the first time you might sit there for second indecisively and think to yourself "WTF?"
beelize54
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 21, 2011
This could explain the recent disappearance of many species of migrant birds, if they could get disoriented with microwaves of GSM networks.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (5) Jan 21, 2011
I think dogs exhibit similar ability when they find their way home at incredibly long distances- far beyond where a scent trail could be picked up. I deliberately avoid driving with a GPS because it interferes with my own biological magnetic compass.
sstritt
4 / 5 (4) Jan 21, 2011
Excellent news for Sir Roger Penrose's Orchestrated Objective Reduction theory of consciousness. One of the chief arguments against it was that quantum coherence was not possible at biological temperatures. This seems to refute that belief.
MorituriMax
not rated yet Jan 22, 2011
In their analysis the Oxford/Singapore team show that only a system with components operating at a quantum level would be this sensitive to such a small amount of noise.


Or due to the lack of natural magnetic noise the birds never developed the capacity to handle it even at "low" levels. If you suddenly perceived up as both up and down simultaneously for the first time you might sit there for second indecisively and think to yourself "WTF?"

Or maybe, sometimes, you can't just sit back and use the first "common sense" thing that pops into your head to make the researchers look like morons.
neiorah
1 / 5 (1) Jan 24, 2011
It would normally be thought almost inconceivable that a living organism could have evolved similar capabilities.' EVOLVED is the operative word here. We have trouble doing what is found in nature so what makes anyone think this stuff happens by chance or mutation..... give me a break
Terrible_Bohr
5 / 5 (1) Jan 24, 2011
We have trouble doing what is found in nature so what makes anyone think this stuff happens by chance or mutation..... give me a break

Human beings can't fly. Nor do they have feathers. Those things probably couldn't have developed through evolution either, then. Right?
Objectivist
1 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2011
It would normally be thought almost inconceivable that a living organism could have evolved similar capabilities.' EVOLVED is the operative word here. We have trouble doing what is found in nature so what makes anyone think this stuff happens by chance or mutation..... give me a break
Your inability to break down concepts is astonishing. You're just capable of imagining two states of something, either off or on. Do you think all creatures living today will have the exact same properties in a hundred thousand years? Is your mind really that limited? I envy your brute stupidity.
jselin
not rated yet Jan 28, 2011
Or maybe, sometimes, you can't just sit back and use the first "common sense" thing that pops into your head to make the researchers look like morons.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I'm not saying this finding doesn't warrant further investigation, but its a bit early to put it on the peg board as an example of quantum effects being used by animals. The basis of the claim, at least according to this article, is that no other mechanism could be this sensitive to fouling. Doesn't that seem a bit open ended?
resinoth
not rated yet Feb 25, 2011
very cool, but can we do it without abusing the animals, that is, through observation in the wild?