Roundworms Detect Earth’s Magnetic Field & Use it to Navigate
It is well known that some animals are able to detect and utilize our planet’s magnetic field. Pigeons use it to navigate safely back home and it helps the red fox determine how they leap toward their prey. However, until recently the how hasn’t been fully understood. Scientists have discovered that C. elegans, one millimeter long roundworms, detect Earth’s magnetic field and move in relation to it! You’d be lying to yourself if you aren’t thinking, “Boy, that sure is neat!”
C. elegans are smaller than a grain of rice, yet have an antenna-like structure protruding from their brain that detects our planet’s magnetic field. This antenna allows them to orient themselves, up or down, as they burrow in the soil searching for food.
Testing C. elegans Ability to Detect Magnetic Fields
To test this scientists put hungry worms in a soil filled tube surrounded by an electromagnetic coil. When left to their own devices, well fed worms dig upwards while the hungry worms dig downwards in search of prey. However, when the coil is turned on, producing a magnetic field stronger than that of the Earth, the worms lose their orientation abilities and dig randomly in all directions.
What’s more, worms from around the world were subject to the same experiment and shown to move at a certain angle relative to the magnetic field in their home environment. For example, when worms from England were tested in the United States they would burrow at the same angle as if they were still in England, i.e. from north to south. Also, while being tested in the US, worms from Australia would hunt for food by moving in the “up” direction, essentially still behaving as if they were in Australia.
Why does any of this matter? The group behind this study asserts that the same type of sensor could be present in other soil-bound organisms. Therefore it is possible to apply this knowledge in agriculture by using magnetic coils beneath crop fields to disorient pests that would otherwise eat vegetation.
So next time you see a worm give it a pat on the back (or not) for being so cool!
If you’d like to learn more about C. elegans, give this short video a watch.
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