New developments in animal research show how ducks and other birds “see” electromagnetic fields and why humans don’t. This excerpt from a recent edition of The Economist magazine’s Science and Technology section reveals the science behind the discovery:

IMAGINE swarms of aircraft all trying to land together on a small stretch of water with no assistance and no gizmos. The result would surely be disastrous. Waterfowl, however, frequently land in groups on featureless bodies of water, yet they rarely collide. So how do they manage it?

Observations of the landings of nearly 15,000 birds of 14 species belonging to 3,338 flocks scattered across eight countries over the course of a year led to findings published inFrontiers in Zoology that showed no matter from which direction a flock of birds approaches a body of standing water, its members usually land on it in alignment with the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The latest research suggests birds detect magnetic fields in two ways. One relies on small pieces of naturally occurring magnetite (a magnetic iron oxide) in their beaks, or inner ears, or both. The other employs a magnetism-sensitive chemical reaction in their eyes, allowing them to “see” the Earth’s magnetic field, probably as bright and dark spots superimposed on their visual fields, rather like the head-up display viewed by a fighter pilot. 

The study follows research from the University of Illinois that reports a toxic molecule known to damage cells and cause disease may play a pivotal role in bird migration. The molecule, superoxide, is proposed as a key player in the mysterious process that allows birds to “see” Earth’s magnetic field.

Klaus Shulten, who holds the Swanlund Chair in Physics at Illinois made the discovery, reported in Biophysical Journal.

Superoxide reacts with the protein cryptochrome, a blue-light photoreceptor found in the eyes of birds and other animals. Schulten was the first to propose that this protein was a key component of birds’ geomagnetic sense, a proposal that was later corroborated by experimental evidence.

Although known primarily as an agent of aging and cellular damage, superoxide recently has been recognized for its role in cellular signaling. However, its toxicity may also explain why humans do not have the same ability to see Earth’s electromagnetic field, Schulten said. 
“Our bodies try to play it safe,” he said. “It might be that human evolution chose longevity over orientational ability.”

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You can see the The Economist article and research here:

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