Birds Navigate Across Oceans Using Quantum Effects

Birds Navigate Across Oceans Using Quantum Effects - Bar-Tailed Godwit
Bar-Tailed Godwit

Over the years, we have spoken several times about the migration of birds as an example of God’s design in the creation. The Bar-tailed Godwit seems to be the champion of long-distance travel flying, traveling 7,450 miles (12,000 km) nonstop across the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to New Zealand. Many other bird species make similar long-distance journeys. The question we wonder about is how birds navigate across oceans thousands of miles with no landmarks. How do they know when to make the journey, and how do they manage the energy requirements of such a long flight.

Modern research has shown migrating birds have a compass that relies on quantum effects built into their eyes. These quantum effects use something called “radical pairs” that form photochemically to allow them to see the Earth’s magnetic field lines. Earth’s magnetic field is very weak, especially in equatorial areas. So any normal effect from the magnetic field would not have enough strength to contribute to navigation, but birds navigate across oceans and over the equator.

Retinal cells in the bird’s eye contain proteins called cryptochromes that contain a molecule called flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD). Tryptophan amino acid stabilizes the FAD, so the molecules are electrically neutral. When a photon of blue light reaches the FAD, a quantum release of electrons makes a radical pair. The electron spin of the radical pair is so sensitive that the Earth’s magnetic field influences it. The bird’s brain detects the quantum changes allowing it to know its flight direction.

This is a simplified explanation of a very complex process by which birds navigate across oceans. Researchers Peter J. Hore and Henrik Mouritsen wrote, “When you next see a small songbird, pause for a moment to consider that it might recently have flown thousands of kilometers, navigating with great skill using a brain weighing no more than a gram. The fact that quantum spin dynamics may have played a crucial part in its journey only compounds the awe and wonder with which we should regard these extraordinary creatures.” We would add to that statement “…and the God who designed them, giving them this amazing ability.”

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: “How Migrating Birds Use Quantum Effects to Navigate” Scientific American April 2022.