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John B. Phillips

4094 Derring Hall (MC 0405)
926 West Campus Dr.
Blacksburg, VA 24061

The Phillips Lab Website

Major Fields of Interest

Neuroethology, Sensory Ecology

  • B.A., Swarthmore College, 1976
  • Ph.D., Cornell University, 1984
  • Postdoctoral Fellow, Yale University, 1984 - 1987

Current Research

  • Magnetic field detection
  • Specialized photoreception mechanisms in vertebrates
  • Long-distance navigation
  • Coevolution of color signals and chromatic processing mechanisms

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Research Areas of Interest

  • Magnetoreception (molecular, biophysical and neurophysiological mechanisms, functional mapping of neural pathways)
  • Orientation/Navigation (magnetic and olfactory navigation, cue integration)
  • Spatial cognition (water maze)
  • Sexual selection (sensory exploitation)

Ongoing Research

Behavioral studies of Drosophila, amphibians and birds have provided evidence for a light-dependent magnetic compass consistent with theoretical models implicating a specialized photoreceptor in magnetoreception. To characterize the biophysical mechanism underlying the magnetic compass, we are investigating the effects of 1-20 MHz radio frequency (RF) fields on magnetic compass orientation in mice, birds and larval Drosophila. Frequencies in this range are predicted to alter magnetic field dependent energy states in a photoreceptor-based magnetoreceptor and, thus, disrupt the response of the light-dependent magnetic compass.  Behavioral genetic analyses of the mechanism of magnetoreception using newly developed behavioral assays of magnetic compass orientation by larval Drosophila(Dommer et al. 2008) and inbred C57BL/6 mice (Muheim et al. 2006) are also being used to investigate the molecular basis of the magnetic compass, focusing on a newly discovered class of photopigment molecules ("cryptochromes") believed to play a role in a photoreceptor-based magnetic compass.

In related experiments with C57BL/6 mice, we are investigating the role of magnetic cues in a task traditionally used to study spatial memory in rodents (modified Morris water maze).  We also have experiments underway in collaboration with colleagues at the Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic to map central pathways involved in processing magnetic stimuli in the mouse brain, retina, and trigeminal nerve system using immediate early gene expression and related neuroanatomical techniques.

Collaborative studies are being carried out with colleagues in Spain, Norway, and Australia to investigate the role of magnetic cues in the navigational map of amphibians, birds and eels.  Experiments utilizing ‘simulated magnetic displacements’ are being used to investigate the magnetic field component(s) involved in a unicoordinate or bicoordinate navigational map.  Related experiments have provided evidence that amphibians and birds have not one, but two, magnetoreception mechanisms.  In addition to the light-dependent magnetic compass, these vertebrates have a non-light-dependent receptor involving magnetite or a similar magnetic material involved in deriving map information.

We are also investigating the integration of multiple compass systems used by migratory birds (i.e., celestial and magnetic compasses).  Much of this work has focused on the possibility that polarized patterns present at sunset and/or sunrise are used as the primary calibration reference for other (sun, stars, magnetic) compass systems.


Landler, L., M. Painter, B. Hopkins Coe, P. Youmans, W. Hopkins & J. Phillips 2017.  ​High levels of maternally transferred mercury disrupt magnetic responses of snapping turtle hatchlings (Chelydra serpentina)​.  ​ Environ. Pollution 228: 19-25.


Jorge, P.E., P.A.M. Marques, B.V. Pinto & J.B. Phillips 2016. Asymmetrical processing of olfactory input in the piriform cortex mediates “activation” of the avian navigation circuitry.  Chem. Senses 41: 745-754.

Painter, M.S., J.A. Blanco,  E. P. Malkemper, C. R. Anderson, D.C. Sweeney, C.W. Hewgley, J. Cerveny, V. Hart, V. Topinka, E. Belotti, H. Burda & J. B. Phillips 2016.  Use of bio-loggers to characterize red fox behavior with implications for studies of magnetic alignment responses in free-roaming animals. Anim. Biotelem.) 4:20 DOI 10.1186/s40317-016-0113-    


Landler, L., Painter, M.S., Youmans, P.W., Hopkins, W.A., Phillips, J.B. 2015. Radio frequency field affects association of magnetic field with novel surroundings in yearling snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina).  PLoS ONE 10(5): e0124728. doi:10.1371/journal. pone. 0124728.

Malkemper, E. P., S. H. K. Eder, S. Begall, J. B. Phillips, M. Winklhofer, V. Hart & H. Burda 2015.  Magnetoreception in the wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus): influence of weak frequency-modulated radio frequency fields.  Sci. Rep., 9917; doi:10.1038/srep09917.

Diego-Rasilla, F.J., R. M. Luengo & J.B. Phillips 2015.  Evidence of light-dependent magnetic compass orientation in urodele amphibian larvae.  Behav. Proc. 118:1-7. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2015.05.007.

McCullagh, E.A., D.A. Cristol & J.B. Phillips 2015.  Differences in plumage color and reproductive output in Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) on mercury contaminated or reference sites. J. Environ. Sci. Health A 50: 1020-1028.


Rakhimberdiev, E., J. Karagicheva, K. Jaatinen, D.W. Winkler, J.B. Phillips and T. Piersma 2014. Naïve migrants and the use of magnetic cues: temporal fluctuations in the geomagnetic field differentially affect male and female ruffs during their first migration.  Ibis doi: 10.1111/ibi.12172. 

Phillips JB and Jorge PE (2014). Olfactory navigation: failure to attempt replication of critical experiments keeps controversy alive. Reply to Wallraff. Anim. Behav. 90:e7-e9.

Jorge P, Phillips J, Goncalves A, Marques P, and Nemec P (2014) Odours stimulate neuronal activity in the dorsolateral area of the hippocampal formation during path integration.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281(1783):20140025


Painter, MS, DH Dommer, WW Altizer, R Muheim & JB Phillips 2013. Spontaneous magnetic orientation in larval Drosophila shares properties with learned magnetic compass responses in adult flies and mice. J. Exp. Biol. 216: 1307-1316.

Diego-Rasilla, FJ & JB Phillips 2013. Use of a light-dependent magnetic compass for y-axis orientation in European common frog (Rana temporaria) tadpoles.  J. Comp. Physiol. A 199: 619-628.

Durif, CMF, Browman, HI, Phillips, JB, Skiftesvik, AB, Vãllestad, LA & Stockhausen, HH 2013 Magnetic Compass Orientation in the European Eel. PLoS ONE 8, e59212.

Phillips JB, Youmans PW, Muheim R, Sloan KA, Landler L, et al. (2013) Rapid Learning of Magnetic Compass Direction by C57BL/6 Mice in a 4-Armed ‘Plus’ Water Maze.PLoS ONE 8(8): e73112. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073112.


Deutschlander, M.E., Phillips, J.B. & Munro, U. (2012) Age-Dependent Orientation to Magnetically-Simulated Geographic Displacements in Migratory Australian Silvereyes (Zosterops l. lateralis).The Wilson Journal of Ornithology124, 467-477.


Jorge, P., A. Estrela, & J.B. Phillips 2010. Activational effects of odours on avian navigation. J. Roy. Soc. B 277: 45-49. 

Phillips, J. B., P.E. Jorge, & R. Muheim 2010. Light-dependent magnetic compass orientation in amphibians and insects: candidate physiological and molecular mechanisms. J. R. Soc. Interface 7: S241-256. 

Phillips, J. B., R. Muheim, & P. E. Jorge 2010. A behavioral perspective on the biophysics of the light-dependent magnetic compass: a link between directional and spatial perception? J. Exp. Biol. 213: 3247-3255. 

Diego-Rasilla, F.J., R.M. Luengo & J.B. Phillips 2010. Light-dependent magnetic compass in Iberian green frog tadpoles. Naturwissenschaften 97: 1089-1095. 


Phillips, J.B. & P. Jorge 2009. What can homing pigeons tell us about navigational impairments in Alzheimer’s patients? Activational effects of odors. Commun. Integr. Biol. 2(6): 494-496. 

Muheim, R., J.B. Phillips & M.E. Deutschlander 2009. White-throated sparrows calibrate their magnetic compass by polarized light cues both in the beginning of migration in autumn and at the end of migration in spring. J. Exp. Biol. 212: 3466-3472. 

Willis, J, J.B. Phillips, R. Muheim, F.J. Diego-Rasilla, and A.J. Hobday 2009. Spike dives of juvenile southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii): a navigational role? Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 64: 57-68. 


Diego-Rasillo, F.J., R.M. Luengo & J.B. Phillips 2008. Use of a magnetic compass for nocturnal homing orientation in the palmate newt, Lissotriton helveticus. Ethology 114: 808-815. 

Dommer, D.H., Gazzolo, P.J., Painter, M.S., and J.B. Phillips 2008. Magnetic compass orientation by larval Drosophila melanogaster. Journal of Insect Physiology 54:4: 719-726. 

Muheim, R., S. Akesson & J.B. Phillips 2008. Response to R. Wiltschko et al. (J. Ornithol.): Contradictory results on the role of polarized light in compass calibration in migratory songbirds. J. Ornith. 149: 659-662.


Diego-Rasillo, F.J. and J.B. Phillips 2007. Magnetic compass orientation in larval Iberian green frogs, Pelophylax perezi. Ethology 113: 1-6. 

Muheim, R., J.B. Phillips, and S. Akesson 2007. Magnetic compass of migratory songbirds is calibrated by skylight polarization at sunrise and sunset.  J. Ornithol. 148: Supplement 2. S485-S494. .


Muheim, R, J.B. Phillips, S. Akesson 2006. Polarized light cues underlie compass calibration in migratory songbird. Science 313: 837-839. 

Muheim, R., F.R. Moore & J.B. Phillips 2006. Calibration of magnetic and celestial compass cues - a review of cue-conflict experiments. J. Exp. Biol. 209: 2-17. 

Rowe, M.P., C.L. Baube & J.B. Phillips 2006. Trying to see red through stickleback photoreceptors: Functional substitution of receptor sensitivities. Ethology 112: 218-229. 

Phillips, J.B., R. Muheim & K. Schmidt-Koenig 2006. True Navigation: Sensory Bases of Gradient Maps.  In M.F. Brown and R.G. Cook (Eds.). Animal Spatial Cognition: Behavioral, Comparative, Computational & Neural Approaches. [Available On-line: (Fall 2006)].

Muheim, R, N.M. Edgar, K.S. Sloan & J.B. Phillips 2006. Magnetic compass orientation in C57BL/6 mice. Learn. Behav. 34:366-373. 

Freake, M.J., R. Muheim & J.B. Phillips 2006. Magnetic Maps in Animals – a theory comes of age? Quart. Rev. Biol. 81:327-347. 


Freake, M.J. & J.B. Phillips. 2005. Light-dependent shift in bullfrog tadpole magnetic compasss orientation: evidence for a common magnetoreception mechanism in anuran and urodele amphibians. Ethology 111: 241-254. 

Diego-Rasilla, F. J., R. M. Luengo & J. B. Phillips 2005. Magnetic compass mediates nocturnal homing by the alpine newt, Triturus alpestris. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 58: 361-365. 

Wente, W.H. & J.B. Phillips 2005. Microhabitat selection by the Pacific treefrog, Hyla regilla. Anim. Behav. 70: 279-287 

Wente, W.H. & J. B. Phillips 2005. Seasonal color change in a population of Pacific treefrogs, Hyla regilla. J. Herp. 39: 161-165.


Ritz, T, P. Thalau, J.B. Phillips, R. Wiltschko & W. Wiltschko. 2004. Resonance effects indicate a radical-pair mechanism for avian magnetic compass. Nature 429: 177-180. 

Rowe, M.P., C.L. Baube, E.R. Lowe & J.B. Phillips 2004. Optimal mechanisms for finding and selecting males: How threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) should encode male belly colors. J. Comp. Physiol. 190: 241-256. 


Deutschlander , M.E., M.J. Freake, S.C. Borland, J.B. Phillips, R.C. Madden, L.E. Anderson, & B.W. Wilson. 2003. Learned magnetic compass orientation by the Siberian Hamster, Phodopus sungorus. Animal Behaviour 65: 779-786. 

Fischer, J.H., U. Munro, & J.B. Phillips. 2003. Magnetic navigation by an avian migrant? In: Avian Migration. P. Berthold, E. Gwinner & E. Sonnenschein (Eds.). pp. 423-432. Springer: Heidelberg, New York.

Wente, W.H. & J.B. Phillips 2003. Fixed green and brown color morphs and a novel color changing morph in the Pacific treefrog, Hyla regilla. Amer. Nat. 162: 461-473. 


Freake, M.J., S.C. Borland & J.B. Phillips. 2002. Use of a magnetic compass for Y-axis orientation in l larval bullfrogs, Bufo catesbeiana. Copeia 2002: 466-471.

Phillips, J.B., S.C. Borland, M.J. Freake, J. Brassart & J.L. Kirschvink. 2002. 'Fixed axis' magnetic orientation by an amphibian: non-shoreward-directed compass orientation, misdirected homing or positioning a magnetite-based map detector in a consistent alignment relative to the magnetic field? J. Exp. Biol. 205: 3903-3914. 

Ritz, T., D.H. Dommer & J.B.Phillips. 2002. Shedding light on vertebrate magnetoreception. Neuron 34: 503-506. 

Phillips, J.B., M.J. Freake, J.H. Fischer, S.C. Borland 2002. Behavioral titration of a magnetic map coordinate. J. Comp. Physiol. 188: 157-160. 


Fischer, J.H., M.J. Freake, S.C. Borland & J.B. Phillips. 2001. Evidence for the use of a magnetic map by an amphibian. Anim. Behav. 62(1): 1-10. (pdf )

Phillips, J.B., M.E. Deutschlander, M.J. Freake, S.C. Borland 2001. The role of extraocular photoreceptors in newt magnetic compass orientation: evidence for parallels between light-dependent magnetoreception and polarized light detection in vertebrates. J. Exp. Biol. 204: 2543-2552. 

Möller, A., M. Gesson, C. Noll, J. Phillips, R. Wiltschko and W. Wiltschko 2001. Light-dependent magnetoreception in migratory birds: previous exposure to red light alters the response to red light. In: Orientation and Navigation - Birds, Humans and other Animals. Royal Institute of Navigation, Oxford, pp. 6-1 - 6-6.


Deutschlander, M.E. , J.B. Phillips & S.C. Borland 2000. Magnetic compass orientation in the Eastern red-spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens: Rapid acquisition of the shoreward axis. Copeia 2000 : 413-419.


Brassart, J., J.L. Kirschvink, J.B. Phillips & S.C Borland. 1999. Ferromagnetic material in the Eastern red-spotted newt. J. Exp. Biol. 202: 3155-3160.

Deutschlander , M.E. , S.C. Borland & J.B. Phillips. 1999a. Extraocular magnetic compass in newts. Nature 400: 324-325. 

Deutschlander , M.E. , J.B. Phillips & S.C. Borland. 1999b. The case for light-dependent magnetic orientation in animals. J. Exp. Biol. 202: 891-908. 

Phillips, J.B., W. Wiltschko & U. Munro 1999. Visual system involvement in magnetoreception in birds. In: Adams, N. & R. Slotow (Eds.). Proc. 22nd Int. Ornithol. Congr., Durban, University of Natal.


Phillips, J.B. 1998. Magnetoreception. In: Amphibian Biology, Vol. 2, Sensory Perception. H. Heatwole (Ed.), Surrey Beatty & Sons.


Munro, U., J.A. Munro & J.B. Phillips. 1997a. Evidence for a magnetite-based navigational "map" in birds. Naturwissenschaften 84: 26-28. 

Munro, U., J.A. Munro, J.B. Phillips & W. Wiltschko. 1997b. Effect of wavelength of light and pulse magnetisation on different magnetoreception systems in a migratory bird. Australian Journal of Zoology 45: 189-198.( pdf )

Phillips, J.B. and M.E. Deutschlander 1997. Magnetoreception in terrestrial vertebrates: Implications for possible mechanisms of EMF interaction with biological systems. In: The Melatonin Hypothesis: Electric Power and the Risk of Breast Cancer, R.G. Stevens, L.E. Andrews, & B.W. Wilson (Eds.). Battelle Press, Coumbus, OH, pp. 111-172.


Phillips, J.B. 1996. Magnetic navigation. J. Theor. Biol. 180: 309-319. 

1995 and older

Phillips, J.B., K. Adler & S.C. Borland. 1995. True navigation by an amphibian. Anim. Behav. 50: 855-858. 

Deutschlander, M. and J.B. Phillips 1995. Characterization of an ultraviolet photo- reception mechanism in the retina of an amphibian. Neurosci. Let. 197: 93-96.

Phillips, J.B. & S.C. Borland. 1994. Use of a specialized magnetoreception system for homing by the eastern red-spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. J. Exp. Biol. 188: 275-291. 

Phillips, J.B. & O. Sayeed. 1993. Wavelength-dependent effects of light on magnetic compass orientation in Drosophila melanogaster. J Comp Physiol A 172: 303-308. 

King, R.B., S. Hauff and J.B. Phillips. 1994. Physiological Color Change in the Green Treefrog: Responses to Background Brightness and Temperature. Copeia (2):422-432.

King, R., Douglas, J.K., J.B. Phillips and C. Baube. 1993. Scotopic spectral sensitivity of the optomotor response in the green tree frog Hyla cinerea. J. Exp. Zool. 267:40-46.

Rodda, G.H. and J.B. Phillips. 1992. Navigational systems develop along similar lines in amphibians, reptiles and birds. Ethol. Ecol. Evol. 4:43-51.

Phillips, J.B. and F.R. Moore.  1992.  Calibration of the sun‑compass of a migratory bird by sunset polarized light patterns.  Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 31:189‑194

Phillips, J.B. & S.C. Borland. 1992a. Magnetic compass orientation is eliminated under near-infrared light in the eastern red-spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. Anm. Behav 44: 796-797. 

Phillips, J.B. & S.C. Borland. 1992b. Behavioral evidence for the use of a light-dependent magnetoreception mechanism by a vertebrate. Nature 359:142-144. 

Etchberger, C.R., M.A. Ewert, J.B. Phillips, C.E. Nelson and H.D. Prange. 1992. Physiological responses to carbon dioxide in embryonic red-eared slider turtles (Trachemys scripta). J. Exp. Zool. 264:1-10.

Waldvogel, J.A. & J.B. Phillips. 1991. Pigeon homing: Olfactory navigation does not explain the permanent‑resident deflector-loft effect. J. Exp. Biol. 155:643-660. 

Etchberger, C.R., J.B. Phillips, M.A. Ewert, C.E. Nelson, and H.D. Prange. 1991. Effects of oxygen concentration on sex determination in the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta). J. Exp. Zool. 258:394-403.

Phillips, J.B. 1990. Lek behavior in birds: Do displaying males reduce nest predation? Anim. Behav. 39:555-565. (.pdf)

Moore , F.R. and J.B. Phillips. 1988. Sunset, skylight polarization and the migratory orientation of yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata). Anim. Behav. 36:1770-1778.

Waldvogel, J.A., J.B. Phillips, and A.I. Brown. 1988. Changes in the short‑term deflector loft effect are linked to the sun compass of homing pigeons. Anim. Behav. 36:15-158.

Phillips, J.B. and J.A. Waldvogel. 1988. Celestial polarized light patterns as a calibration reference for the sun compass of homing pigeons. J. Theor. Biol. 131:55-67.

Madden, R.M. and J.B. Phillips. 1987. Failure to demonstrate magnetic field sensitivity in two species of small mammal. Anim. Learn. Behav. 15:130-134.

Phillips, J.B. 1987. Homing orientation in the Eastern red-spotted newt (Notophthalums viridescens). J. Exp. Biol. 131: 215-229.

Phillips, J.B. 1986a. Magnetic compass orientation in the Eastern red-spotted newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. J. Comp. Physiol. 158: 103-109. (.pdf )

Phillips, J.B. 1986b. Two magnetoreception pathways in a migratory salamander. Science 233: 765-767. (.pdf)

Adler, K. and J.B. Phillips. 1985. Orientation in a desert lizard (Uma notata): time compensated compass movement and polarotaxis. J. Comp. Phyiol. 156:547-552.

Phillips, J.B. and J.A. Waldvogel. 1982. Reflected light cues generate the short-term deflector-loft effects, pp. 190-202. In: Avian Navigation. Papi, F. and H.G. Wallraff, (Eds.). Springer-Verlag.

Waldvogel, J.A., J.B. Phillips, D.B. McCorkle, and W.T. Keeton. 1980. Short‑term residence in deflector lofts alters initial orientation of homing pigeons. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 7:207-211.

Schmidt-Koenig, K. and J.B. Phillips. 1978. Local anesthesia of the olfactory membrane and homing in pigeons. In: Animal Migration, Navigation, and Homing. Schmidt‑Koening, K. and W.T. Keeton (Eds.). Springer-Verlag.

Phillips, J.B. 1977. Use of the earth's magnetic field by orienting cave salamanders (Eurycea lucifuga). J. Comp. Physiol. A. 121:273-288.