The discovery of the use of magnetic navigational information

Wiltschko, R., Wiltschko, W. The discovery of the use of magnetic navigational information. J Comp Physiol A (2021).


The magnetic field of the Earth provides animals with various kinds of information. Its use as a compass was discovered in the mid-1960s in birds, when it was first met with considerable skepticism, because it initially proved difficult to obtain evidence for magnetic sensitivity by conditioning experiments. Meanwhile, a magnetic compass was found to be widespread. It has now been demonstrated in members of all vertebrate classes, in mollusks and several arthropod species, in crustaceans as well as in insects. The use of the geomagnetic field as a ‘map’ for determining position, although already considered in the nineteenth century, was demonstrated by magnetically simulating displacements only after 2000, namely when animals, tested in the magnetic field of a distant site, responded as if they were physically displaced to that site and compensated for the displacement. Another use of the magnetic field is that as a ‘sign post’ or trigger: specific magnetic conditions elicit spontaneous responses that are helpful when animals reach the regions where these magnetic characteristics occur. Altogether, the geomagnetic field is a widely used valuable source of navigational information for mobile animals.

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