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IPFS News Link • Biology, Botany and Zoology

Sensor to detect Earth's magnetic field discovered in an animal for very first time


It has been a long-held belief in scientific circles that many creatures navigate across land, through water, and through the skies using the Earth's magnetic field for guidance. Now scientists and engineers working at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) have finally discovered the organic mechanism responsible for this in an animal. Looking just like a microscopic TV antenna, the structure has been found in the brain of a tiny earthworm that uses it to work out which way to burrow through the soil. This breakthrough may help scientists discover how other species with internal compasses use the magnetic field of our planet to pilot their course.

Discovered in an earthworm named Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans for short), the nanoscale sensor is located at the end of a neuron protruding from the worm's brain. This gives rise to the hope that other animals may well share this attribute, particularly as parallels in brain structures exist across multiple species.

"Chances are that the same molecules will be used by cuter animals like butterflies and birds," said Jon Pierce-Shimomura, assistant professor of neuroscience at UT and a member of the research team. "This gives us a first foothold in understanding magnetosensation in other animals."