Interview with Hynek Burda

Dear Hynek, you are leader of EVA subprogram 1, can you tell us what is your research focused on?

Short answer: Sensory ecology and Bioelectromagnetism. More words are, however, required, to explain these terms. Sensory ecology deals with the flow of information in the nature, i.e. how organisms acquire and respond to information – e.g. how they communicate, how they find food or partners, how they are warned of danger, how they orientate in time and space, how they find home. Bioelectromagnetism deals with the interaction between electromagnetic fields and organisms. Natural magnetic field of the Earth can provide information on location coordinates, it provides direction indicator as well as a slope indicator for e.g. landing birds. Its natural oscillations provide information on time. We are interested in questions, how the animals acquire and process this information, i.e. how they percieve the magnetic filed (this is what we call "magnetoreception"), how they use it in their orientation, and how the disturbances of the natural magnetic field affect their sensing, physiology and wellbeeing.

It seems that magnetoreception of animals and mammals primarily is becoming an interesting research topic. Can you briefly describe the history of the field and how is your team contributing to its further development?

You are right. When I first came across with this topic, in mid 1980ies, the biomagnetic research was only twenty years old, the literature was manageable and was easily to be surveyed who is who in the field. My first encounter with the topic happened at the J. W. Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where I worked in a hearing research lab as a visiting scientist on Alexander von Humboldt scholarship. And the lab next door was that of prof. Wolfgang Wiltschko, the scholar who had proved, for the first time in 1966, magnetic sense in the robin, and at the same time for the first time in animals in general. Frankfurt was a mecca of bioelectromagnetic research in those times. Magnetic sense used to be studied mainly in migratory songbirds and in homing pigeons. In 1989, we published the first laboratory evidence for magnetoreception in a mammal, an African subterranean rodent, the mole-rat. I was the first to bring these interesting animals from Zambia to Europe and succeeded to breed them in captivity. In the meantime, these blind rodents proved to be an excellent animal model for magnetoreception research in mammals. In the course of time, I have become interested in magnetoreception in mammals, and particularly in larger ones.

In 2008, we published a paper on the so-called magnetic alignment, in the cattle as analyzed from the aerial images in the GoogleEarth. This paper marked the beginning of systematic studies of magnetoreception in larger mammals, study of magnetic alignment as a behavioral expression of magnetoreception, and the beginning of my cooperation with colleagues of the Department of Game Management and Wildlife Biology, beginning of my subsequent involvement in the department, and successful inoculation of other colleagues with the topic. The study triggered enormous interest of world media and scientific community. We have received hundreds of reactions. I would like to mention here one of them. Kary Mullis, Nobel Prize laureate for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), wrote us: "I want to reassure you that studying magnetic fields is not useless - it’s just not fashionable yet, but it will be. The electromagnetic force is immensely more powerful than gravity and although we don’t notice it much on Earth due to its bipolar nature (it cancels itself out), it is here, and it surely is a serious contender in the galaxy. And it can carry more information than just “north or south."

This year, we are celebrating 55 years of research on magnetoreception. No one among serious researchers doubts today its existence. Yet, it is still the most enigmatic sense and we do not know for sure its peripheral sensory mechanisms and neural processing. And researchers (and so also we) do not only focus on study of magnetoreception but also on how the electromagnetic fields and the so-called electromagnetic pollution affect physiology, health and wellbeing of organisms including human.

I guess instrumentation is very important for your research. What are the most valued inputs of our project to your work?

Indeed, in our research, finding a correlation between some characteristics of the magnetic field and behavioral or physiological observations on animals is of interest but it is still not a proof for magnetosensitivity. For ultimate evidence, we need to demonstrate that animals respond upon particular magnetic field changes in a predictable way. We have to manipulate the magnetic field– its strength, polarity, inclination - around an experimental animal. And it is not an easy task. Better-to-say: the equipment and facilities to do so are expensive. To monitor movement and some aspects of behavior of free-roaming wild animals like deer, wild boar or hunting dogs, we need collars equipped with GPS, accelerometers, action cameras, biologgers – also quite an expensive endeavor.

Funding by EVA4.0 has thus been a fundamental prerequisite to become competitive in biomagnetic and sensory ecology research and to be able to follow our goals – to study larger wild mammals and dogs. Of course, to do any research you need also personal means to engage doctorate students and postdoc researchers, to finance all the travelling and logistics connected with field research. We appreciate very much to have been given this financial support, which opened new horizons for our research. Not less important has been, however, the inspiring intellectual environment created by the EVA4.0 teams.

One part of your team is focusing on spatial behavior of the mammals. What is the progress here and how is it related to magnetoreception?

Yes, speaking about magnetoreception and spatial orientation evokes the idea of using a (mental) map and a magnet compass to keep the direction and to navigate to the goal. Spatial behavior and its expressions like alignment or homing thus provide behavioral assays for study of magnetoreception. We focus on these behaviors.

Alignment means, generally speaking, arranging into a line or adopting a non-random, predictable position with respect to a certain cue or signal. Sun basking, attentive listening, turning away from blending light or whipping wind, curious gazing on object of interest are associated with alignment. Alignment is advantageous: It helps to acquire information, reduce noise, avoid overstimulation, or to save energy. Study of alignment has a heuristic potential: It informs about motivation and sensory capacity of an animal. The hierarchy of senses, motivation, and actual requirement determine which kind of alignment may prevail (and mask other possible kinds of alignment). Magnetic alignment (= alignment with respect to magnetic field lines) is one type of sensory alignment with all the attributes mentioned above. Our hypothesis is that magnetic alignment helps to put the animal into register with a known orientation of its cognitive (mental) map, reducing the complexity of local and long-distance navigation, and reduces the demands on spatial memory. This would be analogous to strategies used in human orientation; it is much simpler and intuitive to navigate when the navigators align themselves with a physical map (i.e. the users rotate their body direction to coincide with the alignment of the physical paper map), rather than to navigate by mentally rotating the map to align with the user’s orientation. This relatively simple alignment strategy would help animals to reliably and accurately "read"’ their cognitive map and/or extend the range of their maps when exploring unfamiliar environments.

We are studying, among others, also homing abilities of free ranging dogs or displaced game animals such as deer. We are interested whether and how magnetoreception, and thus also spatial behavior can be affected by anthropogenic electromagnetic smog…

I know you are interacting with some other research teams of EVA4.0. Can you tell us more about your collaboration?

Sensing of magnetic fields and reactivity to them is a property of organisms ranging from bacteria to vertebrates. It has been demonstrated and more or less intensively studied in honey bees, cockroaches, fruit flies ... Together with our colleagues who focus on biology of gypsy moths or termites, we are trying to find behavioral assays in these insects, which would enable us to study their magnetic sensing. And, of course, electromagnetic fields affect also plants and fungi, hence there are possibilities to broaden and deepen our research scope …

Thank you Hynek and good luck in our covid times. 

Thank you, Martin, for your interest and the given chance to present our subproject in this form. Indeed, covid has directly struck several members of our team and, due to anti-epidemic restrictions, it partly paralyzed our research. Life and research in covid times are not easy but without those restrictions they would probably be even more difficult. But, let us be optimistic – we shall overcome.

Stay healthy!

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