, Volume 97, Issue 1, pp 37-42
Date: 17 Sep 2009

Magnetoreception in birds: no intensity window in “fixed direction” responses

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Under 502 nm turquoise light combined with 590 nm yellow light and in total darkness, European robins, Erithacus rubecula, no longer prefer their migratory direction, but exhibit so-called fixed direction responses that do not show the seasonal change between spring and autumn. We tested robins under these light conditions in the local geomagnetic field of 46 μT, a field of twice this intensity, 92 μT, and a field of three times this intensity, 138 μT. Under all three magnetic conditions, the birds preferred the same easterly direction under turquoise-and-yellow light and the same northwesterly direction under dark, while they were oriented in their seasonally appropriate direction under control conditions. “Fixed direction” responses are thus not limited to a narrow intensity window as has been found for normal compass orientation. This can be attributed to their origin in the magnetite-based receptor in the upper beak, which operates according to fundamentally different principles than the radical pair mechanism in the retina mediating compass orientation. “Fixed direction” responses are possibly a relict of a receptor mechanism that changed its function, now mainly providing information on magnetic intensity.