Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Homing pigeons theory shot down by scientists

A theory that explains the famous navigation skills of homing pigeons has been shot down by scientists.

Experts had thought iron-rich nerve cells in the birds' beaks acted like a natural compass |to help them sense magnetic fields.

A new study shows that the iron-rich cells are in fact macrophages — specialised white blood cells which form part of the immune system.

The cells play a role in recycling iron from red blood cells, but produce no electrical signals that can stimulate neurons.

Study leader Dr David Keays, from the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, said: “The mystery of how animals detect magnetic fields has just got more mysterious.

“We had hoped to find magnetic nerve cells, but unexpectedly we found thousands of macrophages, each filled with tiny balls of iron.”

The research is published in the journal Nature.

Dr Keays' team used magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography scans to create a “three-dimensional blueprint” of the pigeon beak.

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