New Scientist has a great set of stories about the extraordinary senses of animals, including the fact that creatures like sea turtles can sense the Earth's magnetic field and use it for navigation.
Young loggerhead turtles, for example, read the Earth's magnetic field to adjust the direction in which they swim. They seem to hatch with a set of directions, which, with the help of their magnetic sense, ensures that they always stay in warm waters during their first migration around the rim of the North Atlantic. Over time they build a more detailed magnetic map by learning to recognise variations in the strength and direction of the field lines, which are angled more steeply towards the poles and flatter at the magnetic equator.
What isn't known, however, is how they sense magnetism. Part of the problem is that magnetic fields can pass through biological tissues without being altered, so the sensors could, in theory, be located in any part of the body. What's more, the detection might not need specialised structures at all, but may instead be based on a series of chemical reactions.
Even so, many researchers think that magnetic receptors probably exist in the head of turtles and perhaps other animals. These might be based on crystals of magnetite, which align with the Earth's magnetic field and could pull on some kind of stretch receptor or hair-like cell as it changes polarity. The mineral has already been found in some bacteria, and in the noses of fish like salmon and rainbow trout, which also seem to track the Earth's magnetic field as they migrate.
Via Nicola Twilley
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.