RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A bird’s-eye view may take on new meaning thanks to Army-funded research. Scientists found that a protein in birds’ retinas is sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field, thus guiding its migratory patterns. That finding could be key to Army navigation of both autonomous and manned vehicles where GPS is unavailable.
For decades, scientists have been investigating how animals such as birds, sea turtles, fish, and insects sense the Earth’s magnetic field and use it to find their way.
Researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Oldenburg, supported through a co-funded effort of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, known as DEVCOM, Army Research Laboratory and the Office of Naval Research Global, and Air Force Office of Scientific Research were the first to demonstrate that a protein in birds’ retinas is sensitive to magnetic fields and may be a long-sought sensor for biological navigation.
The team discovered that the magnetic sense of migratory birds such as European robins is based on a specific light-sensitive protein in the eye.