Tuesday, 17 July 2012

It's not to be sniffed at!

I love a bit of weird research of the kind that either proves or disproves a postulation. Research don't get much more weird than that done on cells from the nose of a brown trout.

The postulation was that trout and other animals have cells that can detect magnetic fields and also be used for navigation. The new study was conducted by German scientists led by Dr Michael Winklhofer, from Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

The study has shown that trout have cells in their noses that act like miniature compasses and are believed to help them navigate. The cells, contain iron-rich deposits of a magnetic material called magnetite.

They were found in trout by suspending nasal cells in a solution and moving them using a rotating magnetic field. The cells were then separated off and examined in more detail.

The research highlights that each "magnetoreceptor" cell had magnetite particles firmly anchored to its membrane. Testing suggested the cells were capable of detecting magnetic north as well as small changes in magnetic fields. They were about 100 times more sensitive to magnetic fields than had been expected. But although many studies have pointed to its existence, pinning down the biological mechanism involved has not been easy. Magnetite is not uncommon in cells, but does not necessarily have anything to do with navigation.

So what's so weird about this research I hear you ask. 

Scientists have long suspected that migratory birds, possess a magnetic sense. Scientists also suspect that cows also possess a magnetic sense and that a cows grazing patterns can be disrupted by power lines. The existence of these magnetic cells could well explain how cattle are affected by power lines. Previous research has shown that cows tend to line up in a north-south direction when they graze. But cows grazing under power lines face in random directions, suggesting that their magnetic sense has been disturbed.

If looking for magnetic nasal cells in the noses of fish is not weird enough. Someone has also previously made a study of which direction cows stand to graze. That the study was able to support a postulation that power lines were effecting the cows inbuilt compass. "It sound to me like someone was getting out more than enough."

Evolution has developed physical changes in all animals. I expect fish living in turbid low light conditions could develop over time a system that helps them to find their way around using the earth's magnetic field. But why would the ancestors of cattle need to develop such a system as an aid to grazing?

In the future as you boat past cattle standing in the fields grazing  - I expect you will be checking their physical orientation against magnetic north. I know I shall!


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