It's no wonder pigeons are renowned for their sense of direction: Their brains function like biological GPS units, say two researchers. As Nature explains, scientists already knew that pigeons used the Earth's magnetic field to get around, but the new study shows for the first time how specific parts of their brains process the information. The researchers think those brain signals come from the inner ear, though it's possible that receptors in their beaks and eyes also take in and pass along information, notes Popular Science.
“We have found cells in the (pigeon) brain that signal the direction, intensity and polarity of an applied magnetic field,” a study co-author from the Baylor College of Medicine tells Discovery News. “These three qualities can be used by the brain to compute heading information, like a compass, and latitude on the Earth surface.” A researcher not involved with the study calls it "the most thorough investigation of the magnetic sense so far." (Read more pigeon stories.)