Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Pigeons fly home with a map in their heads

25.07.2013
It is a fascinating phenomenon that homing pigeons always find their way home.

A doctoral student in biology at the University of Zurich has now carried out experiments proving that pigeons have a spatial map and thus possess cognitive capabilities. In unknown territories, they recognize where they are in relation to their loft and are able to choose their targets themselves.


Pigeon fitted with miniature GPS logger
Picture: UZH

Homing pigeons fly off from an unknown place in unfamiliar territory and still manage to find their way home. Their ability to find their way home has always been fascinating to us humans. Despite intensive research, it is not yet definitively clear where this unusual gift comes from.

All we know is that homing pigeons and migratory birds determine their flight direction with the help of the Earth’s magnetic field, the stars and the position of the sun. As Nicole Blaser, a doctoral student in biology at the University of Zurich demonstrates in the «Journal of Experimental Biology», homing pigeons navigate using a mental map.

Navigating like a robot or cognitive capabilities?

Research proposes two approaches to explain how homing pigeons can find their home loft when released from an unfamiliar place. The first version assumes that pigeons compare the coordinates of their current location with those of the home loft and then systematically reduce the difference between the two until they have brought the two points together. If this version is accurate, it would mean that pigeons navigate like flying robots. The second version accords the pigeons a spatial understanding and «knowledge» of their position in space relative to their home loft. This would presuppose a type of mental map in their brain and thus cognitive capabilities. Up until now, there has not been any clear evidence to support the two navigation variants proposed.

For their experiments, Blaser and her colleagues fitted homing pigeons with miniature GPS loggers in order to monitor the birds’ flight paths. Beforehand the researchers trained the pigeons not to obtain food in the home loft, as was normally the case otherwise. «We fed the pigeons in a second loft around thirty kilometers away, from where they each had to fly back to their home loft», says Blaser, explaining the structure of the experiment. The scientists then brought the pigeons to a third place unknown to the pigeons in completely unfamiliar territory. This release site was in turn thirty kilometers from the home loft and the food loft. Natural obstacles obscured visual contact between the release site and the two lofts. One group of the pigeons was allowed to eat until satiated before flying home. The other group was kept hungry before starting off. Blaser explained: «With this arrangement, we wanted to find out whether the hungry pigeons fly first to the home loft and from there to the food loft or whether they are able to fly directly to the food loft.»

Fed pigeons fly home, hungry pigeons fly to the food loft

«As we expected, the satiated pigeons flew directly to the home loft», explains Prof. Hans-Peter Lipp, neuroanatomist at UZH and Blaser’s supervisor for her doctoral thesis. «They already started on course for their loft and only deviated from that course for a short time to make topography-induced detours.» The hungry pigeons behaved quite differently, setting off on course for the food loft from the very beginning and flying directly to that target. They also flew around topographical obstacles and then immediately adjusted again to their original course. Based on this procedure, Blaser concludes that pigeons can determine their location and their direction of flight relative to the target and can choose between several targets. They thus have a type of cognitive navigational map in their heads and have cognitive capabilities. «Pigeons use their heads to fly», jokes the young biologist.

Literature:
N. Blaser, G. Dell’Ariccia, G. Dell’Omo, D. P. Wolfer and H.-P. Lipp. Testing cognitive navigation in unknown territories: homing pigeons choose different targets. Journal of Experimental Biology 216. July 24, 2013, doi: 10.1242/jeb.083246
Contacts:
Prof. Hans-Peter Lipp
Institute of Anatomy
University of Zurich
E-mail: hplipp@anatom.uzh.ch
Nicole Blaser
Institute of Anatomy
University of Zurich
Phone: + 41 44 635 52 89
E-mail: nicole.blaser@anatom.uzh.ch
www.anatom.uzh.ch/research/DivisionLipp/GroupMembers_en.htm

Nathalie Huber | Universität Zürich
Further information:
http://www.uzh.ch

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Tracking the American Woodcock
28.07.2015 | University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

nachricht Possible Path Toward First Anti-MERS Drugs
28.07.2015 | American Crystallographic Association (ACA)

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Superfast fluorescence sets new speed record

Plasmonic device has speed and efficiency to serve optical computers

Researchers have developed an ultrafast light-emitting device that can flip on and off 90 billion times a second and could form the basis of optical computing.

Im Focus: Unlocking the rice immune system

Joint BioEnergy Institute study identifies bacterial protein that is key to protecting rice against bacterial blight

A bacterial signal that when recognized by rice plants enables the plants to resist a devastating blight disease has been identified by a multi-national team...

Im Focus: Smarter window materials can control light and energy

Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin are one step closer to delivering smart windows with a new level of energy efficiency, engineering materials that allow windows to reveal light without transferring heat and, conversely, to block light while allowing heat transmission, as described in two new research papers.

By allowing indoor occupants to more precisely control the energy and sunlight passing through a window, the new materials could significantly reduce costs for...

Im Focus: Simulations lead to design of near-frictionless material

Argonne scientists used Mira to identify and improve a new mechanism for eliminating friction, which fed into the development of a hybrid material that exhibited superlubricity at the macroscale for the first time. Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) researchers helped enable the groundbreaking simulations by overcoming a performance bottleneck that doubled the speed of the team's code.

While reviewing the simulation results of a promising new lubricant material, Argonne researcher Sanket Deshmukh stumbled upon a phenomenon that had never been...

Im Focus: NASA satellite camera provides 'EPIC' view of Earth

A NASA camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite has returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth from one million miles away.

The color images of Earth from NASA's Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) are generated by combining three separate images to create a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

3rd Euro Bio-inspired - International Conference and Exhibition on Bio-inspired Materials

23.07.2015 | Event News

Clash of Realities – International Conference on the Art, Technology and Theory of Digital Games

10.07.2015 | Event News

World Conference on Regenerative Medicine in Leipzig: Last chance to submit abstracts until 2 July

25.06.2015 | Event News

 
Latest News

Possible Path Toward First Anti-MERS Drugs

28.07.2015 | Life Sciences

Smart Hydrogel Coating Creates “Stick-slip” Control of Capillary Action

28.07.2015 | Materials Sciences

Are Fish Getting High on Cocaine?

28.07.2015 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>