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Acta Otolaryngol. 2001 Jul;121(5):590-5.

Magnetic materials in otoliths of bird and fish lagena and their function.

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  • 1Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Hiroshima University, Japan.


The mystery of the homing ability of pigeons has been the subject of much interest and it is widely believed that information from the earth's magnetic field may be involved. However, no specific magnetic sensory organ has yet been identified. The recent finding of magnetic materials in the lagenal otolith of fish and birds raises the possibility that these structures may be key elements in the elusive magnetic sensory system. For the elemental analysis of materials X-ray fluorescence using synchrotron radiation is one of the most powerful techniques available and was used in this study for analysis of the otoliths. By comparing the compositions of the three different kinds of otoliths among several species of sea fish and birds, we found that the saccular and utricular otoliths rarely contain detectable levels of iron but that iron is present in significant quantities in the lagenal otoliths of the birds. The lagenal otolith comprises tiny magnetic particles of low inertia that are displaced by imposed magnetic fields, providing the animal with geomagnetic sensory input, from which the brain would infer navigational information.

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