2009 Animal Navigation: Magnetic Sense


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2009 Seminar 8: Animal Navigation: Magnetic Sense

The remarkable ability to navigate over long distances, associated with either migratory or homing behaviour is common to many animals. Examples are seen in a wide range of taxa including insects, birds, fish, crustacea and mammals. These innate behaviours make use of a range of sensory receptors, allowing animals to respond to environmental stimuli and navigate across unfamiliar territories.

The Kūaka or Bar Tailed Godwit migrates 11,000 km annually from breeding grounds in the tundra of Alaska to the rich feeding grounds of the New Zealand tidal mud flats. As with many migratory journeys, adults leave the tundra in advance of the juveniles, providing clear evidence that this behaviour is innate and not learned. 

This seminar explores the use of magnetic sense in migratory behaviours.

The Seminar Paper and Questions

The Animal Navigation: Magnetic Sense Seminar Paper is available in PDF form as is the Animal Navigation: Magnetic Sense Pre-Seminar Discussion Paper with questions for you & your class to explore and answer.

After the seminar the Animal Navigation: Magnetic Sense Challenge Questions can  be discussed in class.

You can view answers of students participating in the 2009 seminar at the links below

 Animal Navigation Discussion Page          Animal Navigation Question Page

You can view a copy of the seminar video to see an extended presentation of the content. For further study there are links to online resources and papers .

The Seminar Multimedia

To watch a recording of the seminar click here

To download a recording of the seminar [1]click here

Links to your school programme

This seminar links to NCEA Level 3 Achievement Standards:

  • AS 90716 Describe animal behaviour and plant responses in relation to environmental factors

A list of objectives from your Year 13 programme that link into the seminar can be found in the Questions and Disucssion Handout.

About the Researchers and Presenters

Professor Michael Walker |   Jacquie Bay   

Useful Links 

Bird Migration Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Miranda Shorebird Centre

Global Flyway Network

USGS Alaska Science Centre: Pacific Shorebird Migration Project

BBC Radio4 World on the Move Great Animal Migrations

Magnetic Field of the Earth - GNS New Zealand

Resources Written for High School and Undergraduate Students

Department of Conservation Migration Education Kit

Online Talks, Lectures and Webinars

Ready Steady Learn bFM - Interview with Professor Walker


Kalmijn AJ, Blakemore RP (1978) The magnetic behavior of mud bacteria. In Animal Migration, Navigation and Homing. Edited by Schmidt- Koenig K, Keeton WT. Berlin: Springer-Verlag; 1978:354-355.
Kirschvink JL, Walker MM, Diebel CE. (2001) Magnetite-based magnetoreception. Curr Opin Neurobiol , 11:462-467.
Dennis TE, Rayner MJ, Walker MM (2007) Evidence that pigeons orient to geomagnetic intensity during homing Proc. R. Soc. B 274:(1614) 1153 - 1158
Schmidt-Koenig K, Walcott C (1978) Tracks of pigeons homing with frosted lenses. Anim Behav 26:480-486.
Schuler D, Frankel RB (1999) Bacterial magnetosomes: microbiology, biomineralization and biotechnological applications. App Microbiol Biotechnol 52:464-473.
Walcott C, Schmidt-Koenig K (1973) The effect on pigeon homing of anesthesia during displacement. The Auk, 90:281-286.
Walcott C (1978) Anomalies in the Earth’s Magnetic Field increase the scatter of pigeons’ vanishing bearings. In: Animal Migration, Navigation, and Homing. Edited by Schmidt-Koenig K, Keeton WT. Berlin: Springer Verlag; 1978: 143-151.
Walker MM, Diebel CE, Haugh CV, Pankhurst PM, Montgomery JC, Green, CR (1997) Structure and function of the vertebrate magnetic sense. Nature 390: 371-376
Walker MM. (1998) On a wing and a vector: a model for magnetic navigation by homing pigeons. J Theor Biol , 192:341-349.
Walker MM. (1999) Magnetic position determination by homing pigeons. J Theor Biol , 197:271-276.
Walker MM, Dennis TE, Kirschvink JL (2002) The magnetic sense and its use in long-distance navigation by animals Current Opinion in Neurobiology 12:735-744
Walker MM. (2008) A model for encoding of magnetic field intensity by magnetic-based magnoreceptor cells . J Theor Biol 250: 85-91