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Shcherbakov, Valera P.; Winklhofer, Michael (2010): Theoretical analysis of flux amplification by soft magnetic material in a putative biological magnetic-field receptor. In: Physical Review E, Vol. 81, No. 3, 1


Birds are endowed with a magnetic sense that allows them to detectEarth’s magnetic field and to use it for orientation. Physiological andbehavioral experiments have shown the upper beak to host amagnetoreceptor. Putative magnetoreceptive structures in the beak arenerve terminals that each contain a dozen or so of micrometer-sizedclusters of superparamagnetic nanocrystals made of magnetite/maghemiteand numerous electron-opaque platelets filled with a so farunidentified, amorphous ferric iron compound. The platelets typicallyform chainlike structures, which have been proposed to function asmagnetic flux focusers for detecting the intensity of the geomagneticfield. Here, we test that proposition from first principles and developan unconstrained model to determine the equilibrium distribution ofmagnetization along a linear chain of platelets which we assume tobehave magnetically soft and to have no magnetic remanence. Ouranalysis, which is valid for arbitrary values of the intrinsic magneticsusceptibility chi, shows that chi needs to be much greater than unityto amplify the external field by two orders of magnitude in a chain ofplatelets. However, the high amplification is confined to the centralregion of the chain and subsides quadratically toward the ends of thechain. For large values of chi, the possibility opens up of realizingmagnetoreceptor mechanisms on the basis of attraction forces betweenadjacent platelets in a linear chain. The force in the central region ofthe chain may amount to several pN, which would be sufficient to convertmagnetic input energy into mechanical output energy. The strikingfeature of an ensemble of platelets is its ability to organize intotightly spaced chains under the action of an external field of givenstrength. We discuss how this property can be exploited for amagnetoreception mechanism.