Psychology Faculty Publications


Detection of Magnetic Field Intensity Gradient by Homing Pigeons (Columba livia) in a Novel "Virtual Magnetic Map" Conditioning Paradigm

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It has long been thought that birds may use the Earth's magnetic field not only as a compass for direction finding, but that it could also provide spatial information for position determination analogous to a map during navigation. Since magnetic field intensity varies systematically with latitude and theoretically could also provide longitudinal information during position determination, birds using a magnetic map should be able to discriminate magnetic field intensity cues in the laboratory. Here we demonstrate a novel behavioural paradigm requiring homing pigeons to identify the direction of a magnetic field intensity gradient in a "virtual magnetic map" during a spatial conditioning task. Not only were the pigeons able to detect the direction of the intensity gradient, but they were even able to discriminate upward versus downward movement on the gradient by differentiating between increasing and decreasing intensity values. Furthermore, the pigeons typically spent more than half of the 15 second sampling period in front of the feeder associated with the rewarded gradient direction indicating that they required only several seconds to make the correct choice. Our results therefore demonstrate for the first time that pigeons not only can detect the presence and absence of magnetic anomalies, as previous studies had shown, but are even able to detect and respond to changes in magnetic field intensity alone, including the directionality of such changes, in the context of spatial orientation within an experimental arena. This opens up the possibility for systematic and detailed studies of how pigeons could use magnetic intensity cues during position determination as well as how intensity is perceived and where it is processed in the brain.

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Availability via databases maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine.

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Plos One