March 15, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

The Amazing Pigeon Techno-Beak

How do homing pigeons find home?  Scientists at University of Frankfurt may have found the answer: magnetic minerals in their beaks.  A press release from Springer Publications describes the amazing pigeon techno-beak:

In histological and physicochemical examinations in collaboration with HASYLAB, the synchrotron laboratories based in Hamburg, Germany, iron-containing subcellular particles of maghemite and magnetite were found in sensory dendrites of the skin lining the upper beak of homing pigeons.  This research project found that these dendrites are arranged in a complex three-dimensional pattern with different spatial orientation designed to analyze the three components of the magnetic field vector separately.  They react to the Earth’s external magnetic field in a very sensitive and specific manner, thus acting as a three-axis magnetometer.
    The study suggests that the birds sense the magnetic field independent of their motion and posture and thus can identify their geographical position.

This mechanism is probably not unique to homing pigeons, the article states.  It might be found in all birds – and even in other animals that excel at navigation.  Indeed, “many animals display behavior that is modified or controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field.”  These include animals as diverse as sea turtles, lobsters and butterflies.
    A spin-off of this discovery is the human desire to imitate it.  Will similar nanotechnology someday help doctors target drugs in the body?  Will it spur inventions into new data storage devices?  Will it reduce the size of magnetometers on aircraft and spacecraft?  Too early to say.  First, inventors must find ways to synthesize these sensors.  One of the scientists at the University of Frankfurt commented, “Even though birds have been producing these particles for millions of years, the main problem for scientists who want to find benefits from their use will be the technical production of these particles.”

Millions of years would not help pigeons develop techno-beaks.  Aside from that bit of Darwinian flatulence, this is an astonishing announcement.  It goes to show that no skill in nature just happens; there must be structure adequate for each function.  Homing pigeons have been known for a long time.  People have marveled at pigeon navigational abilities since antiquity, but only now do we begin to understand what machinery is involved.  The iron-containing structure in the beak is just one aspect of a system.  As with eyes and ears, a brain must be adequate to process the continuous information flow and make quick decisions.  Would that Charles Darwin, that famous pigeon-breeder, had known about this.  Things might have been different in 1859.

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