By Heather Callahan
The migratory pattern of birds – even if it is a dry subject and the aim of comedic cracks – for some odd reason, has always held the high fascination of biologists.
Never more so than now…
That’s because the classic experiments were so predictable. Such as a cage with some kind of monitors to catch which direction the bird wanted to travel at night.
That is, until it started going tragically wrong in the mid-2000s.
German researchers discovered in 2004 that the regular experiment became an erratic mystery while observing the European Robin.
They would not orient themselves in a single direction. They would not hop in a direction. They were shut down. They were completely lost. Changing variables like food, light, cages…lots of things – didn’t do a thing according to biologist Henrik Mouritsen. For three years they tried to solve the mystery.
That’s when they realized they left out one important variable…an invisible one…
The electromagnetic noise coming from all the electronics on the nearby campus. They made a Faraday cage of sorts by using aluminum screens in the cages – the birds started jumping again.
After spending so many years and so much research just to correct a problem occurring with the original experiment, the sure results presented a new problem to biology and the environment at large.
We are absolutely sure that the effect is real.
That’s why now, the results could be published just today in the journal Nature. Scarily enough – the levels affecting the birds are 1,000 times below WHO guidelines. Being so immersed in electronics it is going to be a difficult task finding out which electronics are causing birds to lose their way. It could be anything that has to be plugged in.
So far, the bird disorientation only happens in large urban and industrial areas or learning campuses. And they ruled out power lines or cellphone signals because the frequencies they emit are too low and too high respectively. But the frequency band range most responsible is 2 kHz – 5 MHz, which would include AM radio, and all area electronic equipment. It is absolutely baffling news to the physicists who will say as Mouritsen recounts, “that can’t have any effect.”
But he didn’t dwell in the realm of conventional physics – he stepped it up a notch to quantum mechanics.
According to The Verge:
“Theoretical predictions suggest that [the disruption] might be an effect of electron spins.” Electromagnetic noise might be affecting electron spins in a molecule named cryptochrome, Mouritsen says — the eye protein that some scientists believe plays a pivotal role in avian magnetic orientation. This could cause the molecule’s chemical properties to change, and the birds to lose all sense of direction at night. But the theory, Mouritsen warns, is “unproven.”
The findings have fascinated other researchers but some say that it’s not that big of a deal and the bird can leave the urban area in any direction to gather its bearings. Mouritsen sees it as a growing problem of high electromagnetic radiation that could be reduced by some means.
So it’s not just a matter of adaptation. Do birds know to stay away from the city? Will they? Mouritsen doesn’t know but says, “I’m sure the birds would have been better off if one of their key compasses had never been disturbed.”
This certainly wouldn’t be the first time animal patterns have been “off” in recent years. It is commonly thought that bees, birds, dolphins and other animals are highly sensitive to electromagnetic radiation. So one would think a little more forethought would go into forays like Navy testing experiments around the world. While cell towers seem to be ruled out of the above experiment, they are certainly implicated for having a detrimental effect on mammals.
A couple years ago, I tried to make sense of all the dolphin deaths – like the ones that wound up off the shores of Peru. I speculated because I didn’t buy the theory that they just suddenly decided to do it and everyone followed the leader. That was a long time ago and thousands more have died under mysterious circumstances – yet “more research” is always needed.
No, the innate intelligence of animals is much too underestimated; much too disregarded. For the first time ever, they have lost their way.
But where will they go when there is no more room to adapt? Why should they be stretched to the brink of no more adaptation to begin with?