Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from Frontiers in Zoology and BioMed Central.

Open Access Open Badges Research

Light-dependent magnetoreception in birds: increasing intensity of monochromatic light changes the nature of the response

Roswitha Wiltschko1*, Katrin Stapput1, Hans-Joachim Bischof2 and Wolfgang Wiltschko1

Author Affiliations

1 Fachbereich Biologie der J.W. Goethe-Universität, Siesmayerstraße 70, D-60054 Frankfurt a.M., Germany

2 Fakultät Biologie, Universität Bielefeld, Lehrstuhl Verhaltensforschung, Postfach 100131, D-35501 Bielefeld, Germany

For all author emails, please log on.

Frontiers in Zoology 2007, 4:5  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-4-5

Published: 15 February 2007



The Radical Pair model proposes that magnetoreception is a light-dependent process. Under low monochromatic light from the short-wavelength part of the visual spectrum, migratory birds show orientation in their migratory direction. Under monochromatic light of higher intensity, however, they showed unusual preferences for other directions or axial preferences. To determine whether or not these responses are still controlled by the respective light regimes, European robins, Erithacus rubecula, were tested under UV, Blue, Turquoise and Green light at increasing intensities, with orientation in migratory direction serving as a criterion whether or not magnetoreception works in the normal way.


The birds were well oriented in their seasonally appropriate migratory direction under 424 nm Blue, 502 nm Turquoise and 565 nm Green light of low intensity with a quantal flux of 8·1015 quanta s-1 m-2, indicating unimpaired magnetoreception. Under 373 nm UV of the same quantal flux, they were not oriented in migratory direction, showing a preference for the east-west axis instead, but they were well oriented in migratory direction under UV of lower intensity. Intensities of above 36·1015 quanta s-1 m-2 of Blue, Turquoise and Green light elicited a variety of responses: disorientation, headings along the east-west axis, headings along the north-south axis or 'fixed' direction tendencies. These responses changed as the intensity was increased from 36·1015 quanta s-1 m-2 to 54 and 72·1015 quanta s-1 m-2.


The specific manifestation of responses in directions other than the migratory direction clearly depends on the ambient light regime. This implies that even when the mechanisms normally providing magnetic compass information seem disrupted, processes that are activated by light still control the behavior. It suggests complex interactions between different types of receptors, magnetic and visual. The nature of the receptors involved and details of their connections are not yet known; however, a role of the color cones in the processes mediating magnetic input is suggested.