Head direction cells in a migratory bird prefer north

Animals exhibit remarkable navigation abilities as if they have an internal compass. Head direction (HD) cells encoding the animal’s heading azimuth are found in the brain of several animal species; the HD cell signals are dependent on the vestibular nuclei, where magnetic responsive cells are present in birds. However, it is difficult to determine whether HD cell signals drive the compass orientation in animals, as they do not necessarily rely on the magnetic compass under all circumstances. Recording of HD cell activities from the medial pallium of shearwater chicks (Calonectris leucomelas) just before their first migration, during which they strongly rely on compass orientation, revealed that shearwater HD cells prefer a north orientation. The preference remained stable regardless of geolocations and environmental cues, suggesting the existence of a magnetic compass regulated by internally generated HD signals. Our findings provide insight into the integration of the direction and magnetoreception senses.

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Editors remarks

This paper is interesting as it talks about the latest research on head direction cells.  Personally I am not persuaded that birds have a magnetic sensor in their beaks, but this is an interesting paper anyway.

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