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J R Soc Interface. 2010 Apr 6;7 Suppl 2:S163-77. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2009.0367.focus. Epub 2009 Oct 28.

Directional orientation of birds by the magnetic field under different light conditions.

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FB Biowissenschaften, J.W.Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Siesmayerstrasse 70, D-60054 Frankfurt am Main, Germany.


This paper reviews the directional orientation of birds with the help of the geomagnetic field under various light conditions. Two fundamentally different types of response can be distinguished. (i) Compass orientation controlled by the inclination compass that allows birds to locate courses of different origin. This is restricted to a narrow functional window around the total intensity of the local geomagnetic field and requires light from the short-wavelength part of the spectrum. The compass is based on radical-pair processes in the right eye; magnetite-based receptors in the beak are not involved. Compass orientation is observed under 'white' and low-level monochromatic light from ultraviolet (UV) to about 565 nm green light. (ii) 'Fixed direction' responses occur under artificial light conditions such as more intense monochromatic light, when 590 nm yellow light is added to short-wavelength light, and in total darkness. The manifestation of these responses depends on the ambient light regime and is 'fixed' in the sense of not showing the normal change between spring and autumn; their biological significance is unclear. In contrast to compass orientation, fixed-direction responses are polar magnetic responses and occur within a wide range of magnetic intensities. They are disrupted by local anaesthesia of the upper beak, which indicates that the respective magnetic information is mediated by iron-based receptors located there. The influence of light conditions on the two types of response suggests complex interactions between magnetoreceptors in the right eye, those in the upper beak and the visual system.

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