John Phillips

Professor of Biological Sciences


Michael Painter

Ph.D. Student

Animal navigation over long and short spatial scales has been well documented in an array of diverse taxonomic groups and involve a range of sensory receptors, complex neural networks and processing, and a variety of motor output strategies.  I am specifically interested in how animals perceive and integrate magnetic field cues for spatial behaviors such as migration, homing, and magnetic alignment.  Unlike sensory systems such as vision, olfaction, hearing, etc., the mechanism mediating an animal’s ability to perceive and integrate cues provided by the Earth’s magnetic field are poorly understood.  Therefore, my dissertation work is focused on understanding the biophysical, molecular, and neural mechanisms underlying a variety of spatial behaviors influenced by magnetic cues.  In order to uncouple the pathways mediating magnetic behaviors, I take advantage of magnetic responses exhibited by larval and adult Drosophila melanogaster, which provide the opportunity to genetically and molecularly ‘dissect’ components of magnetic behaviors on multiple biological scales.  

Similar to the sensory mechanism underlying magnetoreception, the adaptive significance of behaviors such as spontaneous magnetic alignment, in which animals position their head direction or body axis with respect to the Earth’s magnetic field, has yet to be identified.  Therefore, in addition to investigating the proximate mechanism of magnetoreception, I also work at the interface between basic and applied research in an attempt to further characterize magnetic alignment behaviors within an ecological and evolutionary context.  For these questions, I study spontaneous alignment responses in juvenile rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and apply findings from my work on the Drosophila system to test predictions about the biological relevance of these spontaneous magnetic behaviors which may also apply to a host of other vertebrate and invertebrate organisms.