I was at a lecture on animal navigation at the Royal Society this week. Nothing world changing, but possibly some useful bits of background regarding navigation. This deals with the mammal brain, but given the similarities in behaviour between mammals and birds one can assume the birds might achieve some similar process.
The important brain region is the hippocampus and the structure around it. There are four relevant types of cell, the place cell, the boundary cells, head direction cells and the grid cells. The place cells deal with incoming stimuli and perhaps more interestingly with movement in space and time. This seemingly allows the animal to have an idea of how far it has gone and how long it has taken doing it, which certainly might be useful if you are trying fly to Africa. Boundary cells seem to respond to landmarks also obviously useful. Grid cells seem to be a kind of counting mechanism for dealing with regular patterns – possibly more useful for stay-at-home mammals. In the mammals the head directional cell start to function as soon as they get their eyes open.
Editor’s note >>>
Simon is a very regular contributor to our web site.
This summary is very interesting. There has been a lot of work on the hippocampus. Most of this work to date has seemed to prove that the hippocampus is most useful for neighbourhood navigation rather than long distance navigation. This is your ability to learn your local environment and then be able to navigate around it.
We at animal navigation have been investigating the Pineal gland which sits near the Hippocampus in the limbic system of the brain. However, this summary shows just how important the Hippocampus is and this may indeed fulfil the critical missing components that we lack to create a fully developed theory of animal navigation
Please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocampus for more background information.