Pigeon riddle flies in face of science
Paris - Scientists have sent robot scouts into deep space and unravelled the genome, yet on Wednesday were forced to admit they were still baffled by how homing pigeons navigate.
Experts at Vienna's Institute of Molecular Pathology said they had overturned claims that the birds' feat is due to iron-rich nerve cells in the beak that are sensitive to Earth's magnetic field.
"It was really disappointing," molecular biologist David Keays told AFP after years of endeavour. "The mystery of how animals detect magnetic fields has just got more mysterious."
Keays' team used 3-D scanners to search for the cells and sliced pigeon beaks into 250 000 wafer-thin slivers for analysis.
They found that the particles credited with the pigeon's homing skills were actually white blood cells which protected the birds from infection and had no connection to the brain.
"They are not excitable cells and cannot produce electric signals which could be registered by neurons [brain cells] and therefore influence the pigeon's behaviour," the researchers said.
Nor are these cells exclusive to the beak.
Keays described the process as "extremely frustrating" but insisted the findings should not be seen as a setback.
"It puts us on the right path to finding magnetic cells," said Keays.
Cat amongst pigeons
"It is very clear that birds and a large number of other species detect the Earth's magnetic field, so they must have a population of cells somewhere that allow them to do this... Hopefully now we can find the real ones."
Other theories suggest the birds also get a navigational fix from sunlight or from landmarks.
As for the other scientists: "I don't think they are going to like me very much," Keays admitted.
When he first presented the findings at a conference a year ago, "we certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons, some people loved it... and other people were incredulous."
The paper appears in the British science journal Nature. Researchers who published the original claim in 2000 could not be reached for comment.
Keays said magnetoreceptors were so hard to find because they were so small, probably about 20 to 40 nanometres, and "could be anywhere in the pigeon".
"Trying to find a magnetoreceptor is not like trying to find a needle in a haystack, it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack of needles."
Finding it would not only solve a stubborn puzzle but may also have a medical use, he added.
"If we can learn how nature detects magnetic fields we can use that information to create artificial magnetoreceptors that might have some applications in the treatment of disease", particularly of the brain.
"I suspect I will spend the rest of my life trying to work it out and it won't be long enough," the 36-year-old geneticist sighed.