Magnetoreception in Birds: A Comparison Essay of Scientific Literature Sources

Mary Seph
8 min readDec 21, 2021
A group of birds are flying across the sunset lit sky

Vision, taste, touch, hearing, and smell, are the vertebrates’ five commonly- known senses. However, another sense is exclusive to some groups of animals such as birds and insects. For decades, how birds orient themselves and migrate across landscapes has been a mystery to scientists. In 1970, a physicist proposed the Radical-Pair Hypothesis, a theory based on quantum mechanical principles. It postulates that these animals must have a photosensitive molecule that they use to sense the Earth’s magnetic field and navigate. This sense was coined as magnetoreception, the sensing of magnetic fields. This essay will compare four pieces of scientific content: a research article, a review article, a scientific magazine report, and scientific news coverage on “magnetoreception in birds”. The literature depicts the topic on different levels of the audience’s knowledge, use of scientific language, and depth of coverage.

Firstly, the pieces of literature are aimed towards a different type of audience, ranging from scientific to non-scientific/field expert to to-not field expert. Ultimately, the audience is the first and most important factor that dictates the amount of scientific language and how deeply the topic will be explained. The research article “Avian Ultraviolet/Violet Cones Identified as Probable Magnetoreceptors” (Nießner 2011), is written for fellow experts in the field. For example, the article introduces the Radical-Pair Model, however, the information is restricted to its implications for the experiment. By its definition, a research article is a highly specialized piece of scientific information. In addition, for a complete understanding of research articles, the reader needs to be familiar with the topics it brings up. In the article, its content is restricted to scientific concepts in the fields of sensory biology and quantum mechanics. Hence, it does not explain concepts such as “photon absorption” and “radical pair formation.” ‘What is a photon?’ ‘What is a radical?’ These questions aren’t answered because the author(s) assume the reader is familiar with them. Otherwise, if every basic scientific concept were to be explained, research papers would be lengthy, burying the relevant information — the experiment, its findings, its relevant conclusions, and how they fit in the current scientific narrative — which is of importance to fellow experts in the field. This is partially the role of review articles. The review article “Long-distance navigation and magnetoreception in migratory animals” (Mouritsen 2018) serves as an introduction to the topic of magnetoreception in migration. The purpose of this type of article is to introduce non-experts on the topic but still assume a well-read scientific audience. In the case of the Radical-Pair Model, the review lays out the available theory, supporting and unsupportive evidence alike. Because the literature doesn’t explain concepts such as “a molecule’s thermal energy” or measurements such as “mT,” it assumes, just like the research article, the reader has a background in physics, chemistry, and/or biology. For the same reasons a research article doesn’t explain each concept, the importance of a review article is its overview of the topic of choice. To find a more uncomplicated explanation of science, magazine articles are necessary. In stark contrast to the previous two, the audience for the scientific magazine article “A proposed ‘quantum compass’ for songbirds just got more plausible” (Conover 2021) is scientists outside the field. Thus, this type of article is relatively short and easy to consume, usually focusing on a very specific topic. This particular article is reporting on the latest research on the field and its relevant findings. Little scientific knowledge on physics, chemistry, and/or biology is needed to understand. Nevertheless, the journalist explains each relevant concept to understand the relevance of the research conclusions’ such as the “cryptochrome 4,” “quantum mechanics,” and the Radical-Pair Model which is implicitly described. Lastly, the most naive form in scientific communication is the scientific news report. The news report “How quantum mechanics help birds find their way” (Levy 2021) relays the latest research to a non-scientific audience or the general public using colorful visuals and relevant film shots of “Lost in Nature. Nature, 2014,” to keep the audience engaged. As the magazine article, the video is relatively short, a little more than five minutes. Unlike the other three works of literature, the release introduces the Radical-Pair Hypothesis through a historical perspective: The year it was postulated, its author, the field the theory falls into, the main phenomena, and the quantum mechanics property it relies on. This decision helps ground the theory in “reality.” Putting a year, a name, and a field of expertise. This basic information follows the same format as elementary school science classes. Like any kind of literature, scientific literature has different types of audiences which determine the complexity in which the information is communicated.

Secondly, A research article, an overview article, a magazine article, and a news coverage greatly differ in the amount of science jargon used. The first requires a lot of specific objects with complex names such as the “cryptochrome protein Cry1a” in which knowledge of English grammar doesn’t help in guessing the nature of the subject (Nießner 2011). As previously mentioned, the audience for this type of literature is educated in the field, hence the research using terms that would be familiar with experts. It’s like being part of a culture; people living in the same culture are familiar with the definition and implications of certain words. Thus, a research article is a highly-jargoned piece of scientific literature, and to understand it, exposure to the culture is crucial. Fortunately, review papers make it easier to start understanding the topic without having to contact an actual expert. Review articles have a reduced, but significant level of scientific language. In the respective review, the words “cryptochromes,” “quantum mechanical mechanism,” and “magnetoreception” are peppered across the article (Mouritsen 2018). Recall that this type of literature is to educate non-expert scientists, so while specific objects may not be introduced, the reader must be familiar with concepts, like the ones previously mentioned or take note of them, do further research, and/or reread the content to fully absorb the information presented. In contrast, the next type of literature may not be a bird’s eye view, but it communicates the latest scientific news on a topic. The scientific news article succinctly defines all the concepts required for a solid understanding of the writer’s message such as “quantum mechanics,” the “spin” property, and “cryptochrome 4/CRY4” (Conover 2021). The author takes the reader’s hands and kindly explains in a way that’s not overwhelming, so little knowledge of the topic is required. Nevertheless, some kind of education or interest in science is necessary to understand these aforementioned complex words and feel at ease seeing them as these are exclusive to this branch of knowledge. It is in the news coverage that layman terms are finally used, welcoming people of all ages and levels of education. The news coverage uses everyday words such as “birds finding their way” instead of “migration” or “navigation” (Levy 2021). It even introduces the topic comparing magnetoreception and the organ that makes it possible with eyes and vision and ears for hearing (Levy 2021). This is elementary school knowledge, designed for as many people to understand. When communicating scientific research, the amount of scientific language necessary is positively correlated with how much knowledge of the topic is communicated.

Thirdly, the compared literature differs in how deep they go into the topic. In the research article, this is exemplified in the experimental design. Researchers used actual bird eyes to test the hypothesis that UV/V cones in the retina fit the established theory where magnetoreception occurs (Nießner 2011). This type of scientific literature has the freedom to use a large amount of scientific language that allows them to be complex and specific, usually about minute objects; in this case the cryptoprotein1a. Thus, in scientific literature, a research article, a primary source, and a first-hand account are synonyms. They are the deepest the topic goes because the people who write it are the ones who are working to expand the current knowledge in a field. In contrast, a review’s level of depth is slightly more shallow. For example, cryptochromes are mentioned, however, it does not describe that the protein has multiple variants ranging from one to four, each also having unique forms and functions (Mouritsen 2018). While the most reliable review articles are written by experts in the field, and the author might be familiar with the content in the cited research, as an overview of the current state of the field, such a level of detail is unnecessary. Additionally, they may not be up-to-date with every research on the field as they are occurring, giving review articles a certain level of bias. On the other hand, scientific magazine reports are much more accurate because they focus on a single piece of research that has been published for a while. For example, the report on birds’ magnetoreception explains the avian quantum compass may be a protein called cryptochrome which relies on quantum mechanics principles, a science that combines math and physics that focuses on atoms and electrons (Conover 2021). The article is short and to the point, introducing scientific concepts only to strengthen the coherence of the writing. The reader might not have any further questions, their curiosity satisfied. But a news report is even more shallow in its exposition on the topic, which serves to reach the broadest audience. Lastly, the news coverage is a simplistic introduction on birds’ magnetoreception with a focus on the research that has successfully isolated a cryptochrome to test for photosensitivity (Levy 2021). The video settles on the surface of the field by asking leading questions, answering them, and posing questions of interest for the field’s development. The news keeps its focus throughout, straightforwardly conveying information.

Some of the many formats to communicate scientific knowledge are the research article, the review article, the scientific magazine article, and the scientific news coverage. These formats are consistent in the information it presents, while their main differences are the presentation and depth of the information about the topic. Nevertheless, the magazine report and the news report, despite being the most shallow communication on magnetoreception in birds, conveyed its major concepts successfully. Particularly the video used graphics to explain the Radical-Pair Model while the news article’s word choice made the information easy to digest. As scientists, knowing how to communicate our knowledge to other people, in particular the public, is important because our passion can make us dive deep into our ideas and beliefs. Sometimes, we need someone on the outside to take our hands and swim back to the surface and see the world from a different perspective. Not only it helps with our work, but also our mental and physical health.

On the other hand, it is our responsibility to educate the public. Science is one massive group work. Like culture and religion, it lives on by being shared, and it progresses by being discussed and tested. Thus, educating the younger generations in science is crucial for its survival. Because it is them who will carry on our works towards the future. They are the ones who will push the boundaries and challenge the current knowledge, finding supportive evidence and disproving what’s accepted as fact today. As much as we are attached to our work, this detached scrutiny and heartless behavior are necessary for scientific progress. Otherwise, like a dead language, scientific knowledge, slowly but surely, will be covered in the dust of time and be inevitably forgotten.


Levy A, Dubas W, Nyman J, Lee C, and Fuller T. 2021. How quantum mechanics help birds find their way [Internet].; [cited 2021 Oct 27]. Available from:

Mouritsen, H. 2018. Long-distance navigation and magnetoreception in migratory animals. Nature;558:50–59. Access from:

Nießner C, Denzau S, Gross JC, Peichl L, Bischof H-J, et al. 2011. Avian Ultraviolet/Violet Cones Identified as Probable Magnetoreceptors. PLoS ONE;6(5):e20091. Access from:

Conover E. 2021. A proposed ‘quantum compass’ for songbirds just got more plausible. Science News [Internet]; [cited 2021 Oct 27]. Available from:



Mary Seph

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