Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article
magnetoreceptor A device or organ that detects magnetic fields, particularly the earth's magnetic field. Some form of magnetic sense is found in a wide range of animals, including insects, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, but the nature of the magnetoreceptor organs remains elusive. Many species have in their brains small particles of the magnetic material magnetite, which are postulated to transduce the magnetic field into nervous impulses. The animal's photoreceptors may also be involved, and there is evidence to support this in various invertebrate and vertebrate species. One theory is that changes in electron spin resonance caused by the earth's magnetic field elicit nerve impulses. Certain fishes, particularly sharks and rays, use their electroreceptors as magnetoreceptors. This is possible because the animals themselves act as conductors moving through the magnetic field, and so generate electric currents, albeit very weak ones. Seawater is the conductor that completes the circuit and permits detection by the animal's own sense organs. Such a sense is exploited by the animals in navigating through the marine environment.