Birds Get Their Internal Compass From This Newly ID’d Eye Protein

Image: Zebra Finches


Birds can sense Earth’s magnetic field, and this uncanny ability may help them fly home from unfamiliar places or navigate migrations that span tens of thousands of kilometers.

For decades, researchers thought iron-rich cells in birds’ beaks acted as microscopic compasses. But in recent years, scientists have found increasing evidence that certain proteins in birds’ eyes might be what allows them to see magnetic fields.

Scientists have now pinpointed a possible protein behind this “sixth sense.” Two new studies — one examining zebra finches published March 28 in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the other looking at European robins published January 22 in Current Biology — both single out Cry4, a light-sensitive protein found in the retina. If the researchers are correct, this would be the first time a specific molecule responsible for the detection of magnetic fields has been identified in animals.

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