Quantum Biology! – The ‘Super’ Bird’s-Eye View: Magnetic Vision.
The intriguing yet unfathomable conquest of birds migrating across continents has remained an unanswered question for many years and is one of the world’s most famous scientific mysteries. Studies have suggested that birds, amongst other animals, are able to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field.
For a long period of time, no plausible mechanisms were provided to explain this detection of weak geomagnetic field. However, recent experiments on European Robins (Erithacus rubecula), published in Physical review letters “Sustained quantum coherence and entanglement in the avian compass”, suggest that quantum mechanical process could actually be happening in the eyes of these migratory birds! One of the researchers, John Morton has described this phenomenon to be “a kind of ‘heads-up display’ like what pilots have: an image of the magnetic field… imprinted on top of the image that they (the European Robins) see around them”.
The eyes of European Robins are able to detect slight changes in local geomagnetic field. The photoreceptor pigment in the retina of their eyes interacts with incoming light rays, bringing about a pair of spatially-separated electrons (a sub-atomic charged particle) known as a Radical Pair. Radical pairs responds to the local geomagnetic field, creating a chemical signals which translates into directions for the bird’s navigation. Behavioural experiments have shown that these robins can be completely disorientated by interference of very weak radio waves.
The physical mechanisms explaining the above processes are call “superposition” and “entanglement” which Einstein famously described as “spooky action at a distance”. This is when the properties of two particles (such as electrons) become dependent on each other irrespective of the separation distance. Interestingly, these quantum phenomena, which are usually short-lived, can be maintained within the bird’s eye for a surprisingly long period of time.
The suggestion that quantum phenomenon could take place within living bodies is a completely revolutionary idea that is extremely interesting and worthy of deeper investigation. This unlikely marriage between frontier physics and life sciences may possibly lead to hitherto unexpected understanding of life in the universe, such as our very own.
Gauger, E. M., Rieper, E., Morton, J. J., Benjamin, S. C., & Vedral, V. (2011). Sustained quantum coherence and entanglement in the avian compass.Physical review letters, 106(4), 040503: 1-4.
“Quantum biology: Do weird physics effects abound in nature?” by Jason Palmer and Alex Mansfield. BBC News and BBC Radio Science Unit, 28 January 2013. URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21150047 (accessed on 3rd April 2013)
“Avian Compass Reloaded” By Dagomir Kaszlikowski. 2Physics, 14October 2012. URL: http://www.2physics.com/2012/10/avian-compass-reloaded.html (accessed on 3rd April 2013)
“European Robin” By Melissa Mayntz. About.com Guide – Birding/Wild Birds. URL: http://birding.about.com/od/birdprofiles/p/europeanrobin.htm (accessed on 9th April 2013)
“Robin redcrest” By Chris Moody. Flickr Chris_Moody’s photostream, 12 December 2010. URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zpyder/5254643018/