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J Exp Biol. 1999 Apr;202 (Pt 8):891-908.

The case for light-dependent magnetic orientation in animals

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Indiana University, Department of Biology (and the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior), Bloomington, IN 47405, USA.


Light-dependent models of magnetoreception have been proposed which involve an interaction between the magnetic field and either magnetite particles located within a photoreceptor or excited states of photopigment molecules. Consistent with a photoreceptor-based magnetic compass mechanism, magnetic orientation responses in salamanders, flies and birds have been shown to be affected by the wavelength of light. In birds and flies, it is unclear whether the effects of light on magnetic orientation are due to a direct effect on a magnetoreception system or to a nonspecific (e.g. motivational) effect of light on orientation behavior. Evidence from shoreward-orienting salamanders, however, demonstrates that salamanders perceive a 90 degrees counterclockwise shift in the direction of the magnetic field under long-wavelength (>=500 nm) light. A simple physiological model based on the antagonistic interaction between two magnetically sensitive spectral mechanisms suggests one possible way in which the wavelength-dependent effects of light on the salamander's magnetic compass response might arise. Assuming that the wavelength-dependent characteristics of the avian magnetic response can be attributed to an underlying magnetoreception system, we discuss several hypotheses attempting to resolve the differences observed in the wavelength-dependent effects of light on magnetic orientation in birds and salamanders. By considering the evidence in the context of photoreceptor- and non-photoreceptor-based mechanisms for magnetoreception, we hope to encourage future studies designed to distinguish between alternative hypotheses concerning the influence of light on magnetoreception.

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