• Royal Register

The Science Behind Birds' Stellar Sense of Direction

By Sean D'Mello

Every year, millions of birds complete long distance migrations, spanning 1000s of kilometers, with incredibly high accuracy. During World War 1 and 2, homing pigeons were used to carry top-secret messages, relying on their consistent ability to find their way to their nest from long distances—32 such pigeons were presented with the prestigious UK Dickin’s Medal. The successful completion of these journeys rely on the bird’s ability to sense the Earth's magnetic field, and while scientists have proved this fact time and time again, the true mechanism of this internal, biological compass has mysticized biophysicists…until now.

In his lab at Oxford, Daniel Katnig explores the possibility of quantum entanglement in these avian navigators. He believes that nature has evolved an extremely delicate subatomic compass within these birds, and sets out to prove it.

Quantum entanglement is the simultaneous creation of two electrons in close proximity, resulting in the atoms having the exact same spin and other characteristics. The most mind-boggling part is that whatever you change to one of these electrons, the same change will happen to the other, and that change is instantaneous, no matter the distance. Change the spin of one and the other immediately changes.The two electrons are linked, locking them into a strange, yet delicate balance known as quantum entanglement.

Katnig believes this is what happens within the eyes of birds. He hypothesizes that incoming light excites proteins called cryptochromes found in the bird’s retina. This excitement results in the transfer of electrons from one molecule to another, creating two electrons for two molecules. As they are created simultaneously, the electrons are immediately “linked” through quantum entanglement, and a small change in one will result in a small change in the other. At this point, the spin of the electron is extremely sensitive to even the slightest force, and the slight pull of the Earth’s magnetic field is enough to change the spin of the electron. The bird detects this change, and the magnetic data is processed in a region of the brain called Cluster N. With this information, the bird is able to “see” the Earth’s magnetic field and use it as super accurate biological compass to undergo lengthy migrations.

The quantum entanglement state exists within the protein for about 100 microseconds—one ten-thousandth of a second—what scientist Erik Gauger calls “a fairly long time”. Even in pristine lab conditions at temperatures near absolute zero, scientists have only been able to maintain quantum entanglement for a couple of nanoseconds, while within the small, wet, humid and sort-of gross eye of the Canadian goose, the subatomic phenomena occurs for a much lengthier period; atleast long enough to provide the bird a compass. "It seems nature has found a way to make these quantum states live much longer than we'd expect, and much longer than we can do in the lab. No one thought that was possible." says Gauger.

This new understanding of the quantum world is exciting because it merges two fields of study that were once considered entirely separate: quantum mechanics and biology. New discoveries like this demonstrate how lifeforms on the macroscale have randomly evolved to practically utilize mechanics on the atomic scale, a feat yet to be accomplished by the humanity’s greatest minds. Both fields, like 2 simultaneously created electrons, are “linked;” a full understanding of one is impossible without a grasp of the other.

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