Chickens also orientate themselves by the Earth's magnetic field

Jul 05, 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: Sheep flock to Eiffel Tower as French farmers cry wolf

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

CubeSat instruments to demonstrate NASA firsts

Nov 24, 2014

The Dellingr six-unit CubeSat, which is taking its developers just one year to design, build and integrate, won't be the only potentially groundbreaking capability for NASA. Its heliophysics payloads also ...

Ultra-short X-ray pulses explore the nano world

Nov 24, 2014

Ultra-short and extremely strong X-ray flashes, as produced by free-electron lasers, are opening the door to a hitherto unknown world. Scientists are using these flashes to take "snapshots" of the geometry ...

Estimating the magnetic field of an exoplanet

Nov 20, 2014

Scientists developed a new method which allows to estimate the magnetic field of a distant exoplanet, i.e., a planet, which is located outside the Solar system and orbits a different star. Moreover, they ...

Recommended for you

Genomes of malaria-carrying mosquitoes sequenced

9 hours ago

Nora Besansky, O'Hara Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the University's Eck Institute for Global Health, has led an international team of scientists in sequencing ...

Bitter food but good medicine from cucumber genetics

9 hours ago

High-tech genomics and traditional Chinese medicine come together as researchers identify the genes responsible for the intense bitter taste of wild cucumbers. Taming this bitterness made cucumber, pumpkin ...

New button mushroom varieties need better protection

14 hours ago

A working group has recently been formed to work on a better protection of button mushroom varieties. It's activities are firstly directed to generate consensus among the spawn/breeding companies to consider ...

User comments : 0

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.