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Pigeons’ Navigation Abilities Linked to Special Homing Brain Cells  

New research on pigeons’ brains suggest the bird has special navigational neurons. A pigeon is seen in a cage during the second international pigeon fair in Kortrijk.

Photo by GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images

We’ve always known that pigeons have a good internal compass—and now we have the brain cells to prove it.

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine have discovered 53 neuron cells in the small bird’s brain that may actually make up a biological “GPS system,” each with its own characteristic response to the Earth’s magnetic field. The combined data of each neuron’s reaction to its north-south and up-down orientation gives the pigeon not only an accurate compass heading, but may also give it coordinates on a mental map.

Researchers concede that these navigational neurons may not be the only mechanisms the bird uses to get home—they’re also looking for clues in its ear, eyes and beak. But the latest findings give their research a good direction to head in. 

For those of us who can’t navigate our way out of our own driveways, it might be time to find a replacement for the phrase “bird brain.”

Video produced by Paca Thomas.