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Behavioural and physiological mechanisms of polarized light sensitivity in birds.

  • Rachel Muheim
Publishing year: 2011
Language: English
Pages: 763-771
Publication/Series: Royal Society of London. Philosophical Transactions B. Biological Sciences
Volume: 366
Issue: 1565
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: Royal Society

Abstract english

Polarized light (PL) sensitivity is relatively well studied in a large number of invertebrates and some fish species, but in most other vertebrate classes, including birds, the behavioural and physiological mechanism of PL sensitivity remains one of the big mysteries in sensory biology. Many organisms use the skylight polarization pattern as part of a sun compass for orientation, navigation and in spatial orientation tasks. In birds, the available evidence for an involvement of the skylight polarization pattern in sun-compass orientation is very weak. Instead, cue-conflict and cue-calibration experiments have shown that the skylight polarization pattern near the horizon at sunrise and sunset provides birds with a seasonally and latitudinally independent compass calibration reference. Despite convincing evidence that birds use PL cues for orientation, direct experimental evidence for PL sensitivity is still lacking. Avian double cones have been proposed as putative PL receptors, but detailed anatomical and physiological evidence will be needed to conclusively describe the avian PL receptor. Intriguing parallels between the functional and physiological properties of PL reception and light-dependent magnetoreception could point to a common receptor system.


  • Zoology
  • polarized light
  • sun compass
  • magnetic compass
  • orientation
  • homing
  • birds


  • ISSN: 1471-2970
Rachel Muheim
E-mail: rachel [dot] muheim [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se


Functional zoology

+46 46 222 31 93



Centre for Animal Movement Research
Evolutionary Ecology, Department of Biology
Ecology building S-223 62 Lund Sweden