Some animals are gifted with a sixth magnetic sense. For instance, sea turtles returning to the beach where they were born, may come from a symbiosis with species of bacteria.
After 50 years of research a new study has finally been able to shed light on the sixth magnetic sense of some animals.
“The search for a mechanism has been proposed as one of the last important frontiers in sensory biology and has been described as if we are ‘looking for a needle in a haystack,'” says Robert Fitak, assistant professor in the University’s Department of Biology. from Central Florida.
Fitak in collaboration with several research from the UK and Israel have recently came up with the hypothesis that the magnetic sense comes from a symbiotic relationship with magnetotactic bacteria.
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According to them, this is a special type of bacteria whose movement is influenced by magnetic fields, including that of the Earth.
Some animals, including birds and several marine species are capable to detect the Earth’s magnetic field. As previously mentioned above, sea turtles for example can use the ability to navigate to return to the beach where they were born.
“Previous studies of microbial diversity have often focused on large patterns of presence or absence of bacterial phyla in animals rather than specific species,” said Fitak.
“The presence of these magnetotactic bacteria had been largely overlooked, or ‘lost in the mud’ among the massive scale of these data sets,” he added.
For the time being researchers are not sure where in the animal the magnetotactic bacteria is living, but highly suspect that they are associated with nervous tissue, such as the eye or the brain.
By observing how organisms interact with magnetic fields so that we can improve our understanding of how to use Earth’s magnetic fields for our own navigational purposes. It can equally be useful for ecological research on the effects of human modifications of the magnetic environment, such as the construction of power lines, on biodiversity.
Moreover, research on the interaction of animals with magnetic fields may also be helpful in the medical field, such as in the development of therapies that use magnetism for drug delivery.
“I am working with UCF co-authors and local researchers to develop a genetic test for these bacteria, and we plan to further analyze several specific animals and tissues, such as sea turtles, fish, spiny lobsters, and birds,” shared Fitak.