Physiology and Ecology of Behaviour

Will Flyer

How do birds and other animals find their way to their distant goals? Adjunct Professor Roswitha Wiltschko studies the mechanisms that provide birds such as homing pigeons with navigational information. Migratory birds have an innate programme that controls their migratory direction; whereas homing pigeons have to fly directions that vary according to their current position. They must first determine their home course from local environmental cues with the help of their "navigational map". In a second step, they locate this direction by means of their sun compass and their magnetic compass. How these two compass mechanisms develop, how they function, and how they interact, is a puzzle that Wiltschko and her husband professor Wolfgang Wiltschko – a retired professor at the Goethe University Frankfurt – have already largely solved, whereas the mechanisms determining the home direction and the factors that the birds use in this process are still not entirely clear. Wiltschko pays particular attention to the role of the earth's magnetic field in navigational processes. Pigeons bred in the Frankfurt University loft are released in distant sites to observe their response to the various situations and to record their exact home routes using GPS recorders.

Wiltschko investigates the physiological basis of the avian magnetic compass mainly in two species, European robins and domestic chickens Together with her husband, she has identified the avian compass as an "inclination compass" that does not rely on the polarity of the field lines, but on their axial course and its inclination. Working together with physicists she has managed to elucidate the biophysical process underlying this phenomenon and to identify it as a radical pair mechanism. The photopigment cytochrome has been suggested as the receptor molecule; ongoing studies have detected it in the retina of birds, where it is found in a specific type of photoreceptor, the UV-cones, indicating an interaction between the reception of magnetic directions and vision. Birds also have a second type of magnetoreceptor, a magnetite-based receptor in their upper beak that provides them with information on the local magnetic intensity. This information is involved in the mechanisms with which birds determine their location and home course. As Wiltschko puts it, "Our objective is to achieve a detailed understanding of the highly complex interactions between the magnetic receptors in the eyes of birds and those in the beak with the photoreceptors". In addition to general zoology, Wiltschko teaches students the primary behavioural methods of her physiological work, but also – depending on the type of problem – genetic, neurobiological or molecular biological analytical approaches. 

Brief Biography

Will klein

Roswitha Wiltschko studied zoology, botany and palaeontology at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Subsequent to completion of her Diploma thesis on triggering breeding in zebra finches, she focused her attention on questions of how birds use the sun for orientation in her dissertation. In 1990 Wiltschko obtained her Habilitation in Frankfurt with a thesis on "Die Bestimmung der Sollrichtung beim Heimfinden (The determination the desired direction during homing)". Since 1970 she has been investigating spatial orientation and navigation in birds, together with her husband Wolfgang Wiltschko, who until 2003 was a professor in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the Goethe University Frankfurt. They have headed a large number of research projects in Europe, the USA, New Zealand and Australia and have established many international and interdisciplinary cooperation projects.


Adjunct Professor Dr. Roswitha Wiltschko
Institute of Ecology, Evolution and Diversity
Siesmayerstr. 70 (Gebäude A)
60323 Frankfurt am Main
Telephone: +49 (0)69 798 24703