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 The interactome of infected neural cells reveals new therapeutic targets for Zika
23.01.2017 | D'Or Institute for Research and Education

nachricht Ion treatments for cardiac arrhythmia — Non-invasive alternative to catheter-based surgery
20.01.2017 | GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung GmbH

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Quantum optical sensor for the first time tested in space – with a laser system from Berlin

For the first time ever, a cloud of ultra-cold atoms has been successfully created in space on board of a sounding rocket. The MAIUS mission demonstrates that quantum optical sensors can be operated even in harsh environments like space – a prerequi-site for finding answers to the most challenging questions of fundamental physics and an important innovation driver for everyday applications.

According to Albert Einstein's Equivalence Principle, all bodies are accelerated at the same rate by the Earth's gravity, regardless of their properties. This...

Im Focus: Traffic jam in empty space

New success for Konstanz physicists in studying the quantum vacuum

An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

Im Focus: Studying fundamental particles in materials

Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales

Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Sustainable Water use in Agriculture in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

19.01.2017 | Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

New technology for mass-production of complex molded composite components

23.01.2017 | Process Engineering

Quantum optical sensor for the first time tested in space – with a laser system from Berlin

23.01.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

The interactome of infected neural cells reveals new therapeutic targets for Zika

23.01.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>