Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 148, Supplement 2, pp 643–648

Iron-mineral-based magnetoreception in birds: the stimulus conducting system

  • Gerta Fleissner
  • Guenther Fleissner
  • Branko Stahl
  • Gerald Falkenberg
Original Article


Birds are among the most throughly investigated model systems for the analysis of the impact of magnetic fields on behavior and physiology. They are known to be able to use astonishingly small changes in field intensity, direction and inclination between locations as a magnetic map and compass. However, the neurobiological mechanisms and the magnetophysical principles of the underlying sensory processes that lead to this ability are largely unknown. For many years these organisms have been treated as black box systems with magnetic field components as input and various behavioral phenomena as output. Many hypotheses that do not incorporate neurobiological principles or magnetophysical background knowledge have been derived based on the results of such studies. In this study, for the first time, we make use of physiological receptor paradigms in order to obtain a sound model for iron-mineral-based magnetoreception in birds. Based on histological and physicochemical data from a dendritic system in the avian beak, we present a model of the stimulus conducting system that recognizes the adequate stimulus. Special receptor features transform this stimulus into peripheral nervous system excitation, and the local magnetic field vector is then perceived via information processing performed by the central nervous system. Based on this approach, further neurobiological and behavioral experiments can be developed that critically test the proposed model of magnetoreception and, in particular, study the complex processes of perception and motor control that occur during magnetic field orientation in more depth.


3-Axis magnetometer Maghemite Magnetite Adequate stimulus Stimulus conducting system 


  1. Bacri JC, Salin D, Massart R (1982) Study of the deformation of ferrofluid droplets in a magnetic field. J Phys Lett 43:L179–L183Google Scholar
  2. Bazylinski DA (1999) Synthesis of the bacterial magnetosome: the making of a magnetic personality. Int Microbiol 2:71–80PubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Beason RC (2005) Mechanisms of magnetic orientation in birds. Integr Comp Biol 45:565–573CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Birbaumer N, Schmidt RF (1989) Biologische Psychologie. Springer, Berlin, pp 306–310Google Scholar
  5. Burkhardt D (1971) Wörterbuch der Neurophysiologie (incl English and Russian translation). Fischer, Jena, p 225Google Scholar
  6. Davila A, Fleissner G, Winklhofer M, Petersen N (2003) A new model for a magnetoreceptor in homing pigeons based on interacting clusters of superparamagnetic magnetite. Phys Chem Earth 28:647–652Google Scholar
  7. Diebel CE, Proksch R, Green CR, Neilson P, Walker MM (2000) Magnetite defines a vertebrate magnetoreceptor. Nature 406:299–302PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Dubbeldam JL (1998) The sensory trigeminal system in birds: input, organization and effects of peripheral damage. A review. Arch Physiol Biochem 106:338–345PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Fleissner G, Holtkamp-Rötzler E, Hanzlik M, Winklhofer M, Fleissner G, Petersen N, Wiltschko W (2003) Ultastructural analysis of a putative magnetoreceptor in the beak of homing pigeons. J Comp Neurol 458:350–360PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Fleissner G, Stahl B, Thalau P, Falkenberg G, Fleissner G (2007) A novel concept of Fe-mineral based magnetoreception: histological and physicochemical data from the upper beak of homing pigeons. Naturwissenschaften 94:631–642PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Freake MJ, Muheim R, Phillips JB (2006) Magnetic maps in animals: a theory comes of age? Quart Rev Biol 81:327–347PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hanzlik M, Heunemann C, Holtkamp-Rötzler E, Winklhofer M, Petersen N, Fleissner G (2000) Superparamagnetic magnetite in the upper beak tissue of homing pigeons. Biometals 13:325–331PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Holtkamp-Rötzler E, Fleissner G, Hanzlik M, Wiltschko W, Petersen N (1997) Mechanoreceptors in the upper beak of homing pigeons (Columba livia) as putative structural candidates for magnetoreception? Verh DZG 90:290Google Scholar
  14. Irwin WP, Lohmann KJ (2005) Disruption of magnetic orientation in hatchling loggerhead sea turtles by pulsed magnetic fields. J Comp Physiol A191:475–480CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Johnsen S, Lohmann KJ (2005) The physics and neurobiology of magnetoreception. Nat Rev Neurosci 6:703–712PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Kirschvink JL, Gould JL (1981) Biogenic magnetite as a basis for magnetite-based magnetic field detection in animals. BioSystems 13:181–201PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kirschvink JL, Walker MM, Diebel CE (2001) Magnetite-based magnetoreception. Curr Opin Neurobiol 11:462–7PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Mann S, Sparks NH, Walker MM, Kirschvink JL (1988) Ultrastructure, morphology and organization of biogenic magnetite from sockeye salmon, Oncorhynchus nerka: implications for magnetoreception. J Exp Biol 140:35–49PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Mouritsen H, Ritz T (2005) Magnetoreception and its use in bird navigation. Curr Opin Neurobiol 15:406–414PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Phillips JB, Borland SC, Freake MJ, Brassart J, Kirschvink JL (2002) ‘Fixed-axis’ magnetic orientation by an amphibian: non-shoreward-directed compass orientation, misdirected homing or positioning a magnetite-based map detector in a consistent alignment relative to the magnetic field? J Exp Biol 205:3903–3914PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Ritz T, Adem S, Schulten K (2000) A model for photoreceptor-based magnetoreception in birds. Biophys J 78:707–718PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Shcherbakov VP, Winklhofer M (1999) The osmotic magnetometer: a new model for a magnetite-based magnetoreceptor in animals. Eur Biophys J 28:380–392CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Solov’yov IA, Greiner W (2007) Theoretical analysis of an iron mineral-based magnetoreceptor model in birds. Biophys J 93:1493–1509PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Stahl B, Fleissner G, Barnert E, Falkenberg G (2006a) Element scanning by μXRF in putative magnetic field receptors in the upper beak skin of homing pigeons (HASYLAB Annual Report 2005). DESY, Hamburg, pp 1029–1030Google Scholar
  25. Stahl B, Fleissner G, Falkenberg G, Fleissner G (2006b) Magnetite nanoparticles alone are not able to explain iron mineral-based magnetoreception in homing pigeons. In: Kyriakopoulos A, Michalke B, Graebert A, Behne D (eds) Proceeding of the 4th Fall Conference on metalloproteins and metalloidproteins. Herbert Utz Verlag, München, pp 63–68Google Scholar
  26. Stahl B, Fleissner G, Fleissner G, Falkenberg G (2007a) Cross-species unveiling of a putative avian magnetoreceptor (HASYLAB Annual Report 2006). DESY, Hamburg, pp 1289–1290Google Scholar
  27. Stahl B, Fleissner G, Fleissner G, Holub-Krappe (2007b) Micromagnetic aspects of magneto-reception of homing pigeons based on iron minerals (XAFS13: 13th International Conference). AIP Conf Proc 882:755–757Google Scholar
  28. Walker M, Diebel CE, Haugh CV, Pankhurst PM, Montgomery JC, Green CR (1997) Structure and function of the vertebrate magnetic sense. Nature 390: 371–376CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Wiltschko W, Munro U, Wiltschko R, Kirschvink JL (2002) Magnetite-based magnetoreception in birds: the effect of a biasing field and a pulse on migratory behavior. J Exp Biol 205:3031–3037PubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Wiltschko R, Wiltschko W (1995) Magnetic orientation in animals. Springer, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  31. Wiltschko W, Wiltschko R (2005) Magnetic orientation and magnetoreception in birds and other animals. J Comp Physiol A 191:675–693CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Wiltschko W, Munro U, Ford H, Wiltschko R (2006) Bird navigation: what type of information does the magnetite-based receptor provide? Proc Biol Sci 273:2815–2820PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Winklhofer M, Holtkamp-Rötzler E, Hanzlik M, Fleissner G, Petersen N (2001) Clusters of superparamagnetic magnetite particles in the upper beak skin of homing pigeons: evidence of a magnetoreceptor? Eur J Mineral 13:659–669CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gerta Fleissner
    • 1
  • Guenther Fleissner
    • 1
  • Branko Stahl
    • 1
  • Gerald Falkenberg
    • 2
  1. 1.Institute of Cell Biology and NeurosciencesJ. W. Goethe-UniversityFrankfurt am MainGermany
  2. 2.Hamburger Synchrotronstrahlungslabor HASYLAB at Deutsche Elektronen-Synchrotronlabor DESYHamburgGermany

Personalised recommendations