Animal Navigation: Magnetic Sense

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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 (Box 1), allowing animals to respond to environmental stimuli and navigate across unfamiliar territories.

Migration is defined as the regular and intentional mass movement of animals from a breeding area to another area where they do not breed. Migratory movements are regulated by internal clocks in response to environmental cues. 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. Homing is the ability of an animal to return to its nesting site after travelling beyond this site, usually to find food. While this is often across territories which are familiar, this is not always the case. The Toroa or Albatross exhibit homing behaviours, flying across vast areas of the southern oceans to feed, returning to their breeding grounds in New Zealand and the Sub‐Antarctic Islands. Bees similarly can return from distances up to 10 kilometres from their hives.

The Seminar Paper and Questions

Kuaka - Bar Tailed Godwit,  Miranda New Zealand © Jacquie Bay
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 post your answers to the challenge questions on at the links below:

1. Using information from the seminar, explain how scientists believe animals detect magnetic fields and
outline the evidence that suggests that this ability is used in navigation. Answer this question here.
2. Animal navigation involves both timing and orientation behaviours in response to environmental cues.
Discuss the relationship between timing and orientation in homing and migration behaviours. Answer this question here.
3. For an environmental cue to be of use to an animal in navigation, the cue must be:
- consistent,
- vary systematically in space to provide information about specific points on the Earth’s
- be stable over time
- provide enough accuracy to allow the animal to reach its specific goal destination.
Using named examples, discuss the adaptive advantage of the ability to use magnetic sense in comparison
to other environmental cues.Answer this question here.

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 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

Radio NZ Interview - Professor Michael Walker talking about his research

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