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Zebra finches have a light-dependent magnetic compass similar to migratory birds

  • Atticus Pinzon-Rodriguez
  • Rachel Muheim
Publishing year: 2017-04-01
Language: English
Pages: 1202-1209
Publication/Series: Journal of Experimental Biology
Volume: 220
Issue: 7
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: The Company of Biologists Ltd

Abstract english

Birds have a light-dependent magnetic compass that provides information about the spatial alignment of the geomagnetic field. It is proposed to be located in the avian retina and mediated by a lightinduced, radical-pair mechanism involving cryptochromes as sensory receptor molecules. To investigate how the behavioural responses of birds under different light spectra match with cryptochromes as the primary magnetoreceptor, we examined the spectral properties of the magnetic compass in zebra finches. We trained birds to relocate a food reward in a spatial orientation task using magnetic compass cues. The birds were well oriented along the trained magnetic compass axis when trained and tested under low-irradiance 521 nm green light. In the presence of a 1.4 MHz radio-frequency electromagnetic (RF)-field, the birds were disoriented, which supports the involvement of radical-pair reactions in the primary magnetoreception process. Birds trained and tested under 638 nm red light showed a weak tendency to orient ~45 deg clockwise of the trained magnetic direction. Under low-irradiance 460 nm blue light, they tended to orient along the trained magnetic compass axis, but were disoriented under higher irradiance light. Zebra finches trained and tested under high-irradiance 430 nm indigo light were well oriented along the trained magnetic compass axis, but disoriented in the presence of a RF-field. We conclude that magnetic compass responses of zebra finches are similar to those observed in nocturnally migrating birds and agree with cryptochromes as the primary magnetoreceptor, suggesting that light-dependent, radicalpair- mediated magnetoreception is a common property for all birds, including non-migratory species.


  • Zoology
  • Behavioral Sciences Biology
  • Cryptochrome
  • Magnetoreception
  • Orientation
  • Radical-pair process
  • Taeniopygia guttata


  • Lund Vision Group
  • ISSN: 0022-0949
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