Animals have a more apt set of senses than their human counterparts. While scientists have been able to observe and quantify behavior indicative of higher senses, we’ve only recently begun to break down the ‘how’ of these phenomena.
Cryptochromes are light sensitive molecules that exist in all bacteria, plants and animals. In animals, these molecules control the host’s circadian rhythms.
These rhythms control the animals sleep cycle. Cryptochromes are what help birds literally see magnetic fields. Specifically cyrptochrome 1a is directly involved in the light dependent magnetic orientation response and is located in the photo-receptors in bird’s eyes.
The Max Planck Institute for Brain Research is looking into the matter more intensely. Researchers have detected cryptochrome 1 in several mammalian species thus far. It is believed that any animal with this cryptochrome have the ability to visually inspect magnetic fields.
Birds, for instance, migrate with normally unerring accuracy. It’s not as though the birds have compasses in their eyes, but rather can see the inclination of the magnetic field lines relative to the Earth’s surface. A key element of cryptochrome 1a is that it must be simultaneously activated by light in order to react to magnetic fields.
In every case that cryptochrome 1a has been found in mammalian and avian species, it has been located in the blue to UV sensitive cones.
The researchers have found cryptochrome 1 in mainly canine species: dogs, wolves, bears, foxes and badgers. It has not been found in feline species like cats, lions and tigers.Of the primates only the orangutan had the ability to see magnetic fields.
This isn’t the only theory of how animals can see magnetic fields. There are microscopic ferrous particles found in specialized cells. This magnetic sense requires no light. Mole rats and birds have this pocket compass.
For now, more research is necessary to understand the full function of cryptochrome 1. What has been uncovered this far is very interesting and may have implication is survival gear, and navigation.