In the case of pigeons, the ability allows them to travel hundreds of miles. Dickman reminded that "the ancient Romans used pigeons to carry messages home from their battles." Up to a certain point, the GPS is useful, but when honing in on a specific location, he believes pigeons rely more upon other orientation cues, such as vision and smell.
Humans, on the other hand, still have to ask for directions.
"It is not currently believed that humans possess a magnetic sense," Dickman said. "However, humans do have a very elaborate spatial mapping system that helps us navigate our daily routes, like finding the kitchen from our bedroom, or the grocery store when driving from home."
Most of the related brain activity comes from the hippocampus. When this is damaged, through things like inner ear problems or dementia, people may then have a diminished, or even completely absent, spatial orientation capacity.
The new study is receiving rave reviews from other experts in the field.
Kenneth Lohmann, a University of North Carolina professor of biology, told Discovery News that the study "is the most thorough investigation of the magnetic sense so far, in terms of neurobiological approaches, and it will no doubt inspire much additional work in the future."