A researcher studying how monarch butterflies navigate has picked up a strong hint that people may be able to sense the earth’s magnetic field and use it for orienting themselves.
Many animals rely on the magnetic field for navigation, and researchers have often wondered if people, too, might be able to detect the field; that might explain how Polynesian navigators can make 3,000-mile journeys under starless skies. But after years of inconclusive experiments, interest in people’s possible magnetic sense has waned.
That may change after an experiment being reported last week by Steven M. Reppert, a neurobiologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and his colleagues Lauren E. Foley and Robert J. Gegear. They have been studying cryptochromes, light-sensitive proteins that help regulate the daily rhythm of the body’s cells, and how they help set the sun compass by which monarchs navigate.