How Quantum Mechanics Help Birds Detect Magnetic Fields

How Quantum Mechanics Help Birds Detect Magnetic Fields

Quantum mechanics has been a conundrum for scientists for most of its part. Back in the 1920s, physicists such as Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, and Paul Dirac had been desperately struggling to understand the atom. The tiny structure is far too stubborn to be explained by any comprehensive models – it can only be described through very abstract mathematics.

While we’re pretty certain that birds don’t understand how atoms work, either, what’s for sure is that our flying friends are receiving a lot of help from quantum mechanics.

Birds take advantage of quantum mechanics for seasonal migration

Gizmodo brings the incredible news that birds have the ability to feel the magnetic field of the Earth by using quantum mechanics processes that occur in their eyes. Their purpose is to return to the same places every year during the seasonal migration.

For the new study, a research team that was led by members of the University of Oldenburg (Germany), as well as Oxford University, began to study the cryptochrome-4 protein from the birds’ retinas. Scientists suspected for a long time that the protein was used by birds as a magnetic detector. The protein takes part in reactions that produce new molecules that depend on the magnetic field’s direction. The neurons of the animals respond to such molecules to make them reorient themselves in space.

However, Jingjing Xu, who’s a biologist from the University of Oldenburg (Germany), admits one crucial aspect:

But no one could confirm or verify this in the lab.

The new research team observed in mode detail how the protein could respond to a magnetic field when it’s isolated in a test tube. Neuroethologist Eric Warrant from Lund University, who wasn’t involved in the research, declared:

This particular paper has added an important stack of evidence in support of the cryptochrome mechanism.

The new study was published in Nature.


Even since he was a child, Cristian was staring curiously at the stars, wondering about the Universe and our place in it. Today he's seeing his dream come true by writing about the latest news in astronomy. Cristian is also glad to be covering health and other science topics, having significant experience in writing about such fields.

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