Pigeon riddle flies in face of science

2012-04-11 22:41

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.

  • Robert - 2012-04-11 23:53

    and we dont respect nature as a whole. Mayby eating doves beaks are more of a mistery than rhino horn to the chinese. It gives you a sene of direction and not erection.

      Dee - 2012-04-12 01:34


  • Leonard - 2012-04-12 07:13

    Maybe they just remember where they live???

      Mark - 2012-04-12 07:19

      But how do they remember where to go back to when placed in a box and transported to another region, as in pigeon races.

  • Andre - 2012-04-12 07:29

    Just another one of millions pieces of evidence that there is an intelligent designer God (JHWH) the Creator. It is high time that religion and science take hands and admit that both if them do play a crucial part to educate the human race. The one cannot do without the other because both are important!

      Phillip van Niekerk - 2012-04-12 07:53

      Hi Andre, I agree!

      Andrew - 2012-04-12 08:19

      god is a DJ

      Sam - 2012-04-12 08:39

      "I don't understand ? God"

      Lostand - 2012-04-12 09:00

      I actually predicted that I would find a “god” comment on this article the instant I read the heading. The real mechanism of how these animals navigate will be discovered eventually. Then what? Will you stop believing? No you won’t, you will continue to plug gaps in knowledge with fairy tale fallacies. Why? Because you are afraid of the truth.

      PhilosopherStoned - 2012-04-12 11:26

      God is the answer to every mystery that science cannot explain. The poor guy is getting smaller and smaller each year..

      Slim - 2012-04-12 14:25

      SO this means pigeons cant navigate.It cant be proven, so it cant be true?

  • Stephen - 2012-04-12 07:33

    GPS, Global pigeon system.

  • Byron - 2012-04-12 09:48

    Some postulate that these magnetic sensors work on a basis of quantum entanglement. Because magnetic fields vary from place to place, they sync their senses to the place they wish to go, and navigate there.

  • veritas.odium.paret - 2012-04-12 14:25

    I guess nothing is safe from pigeon droppings; statues, buildings, cars, people and now they're even crapping on scientific knowledge aswell!

  • Bobby - 2012-04-12 14:41

    Not only pigeons but a host of animals that migrate over vast distances to their places of origin.

  • Tom Dunn - 2015-06-20 17:41

    It has been proven that swallows even return to the same nets that they had build the previous year. It could mean a lot for the human race if it can be frigured out how they do it. To me it shows the hand of God Almighty in the creation of all things. Stuff like this do not "just happen", or occur all by itself without the will of GOD.

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