Behavioural studies underpin the weight of experimental evidence for the existence of a magnetic sense in animals. In contrast, studies aimed at understanding the mechanistic basis of magnetoreception by determining the anatomical location, structure and function of sensory cells have been inconclusive. In this review, studies attempting to demonstrate the existence of a magnetoreceptor based on the principles of the magnetite hypothesis are examined. Specific attention is given to the range of techniques, and main animal model systems that have been used in the search for magnetite particulates. Anatomical location/cell rarity and composition are identified as two key obstacles that must be addressed in order to make progress in locating and characterizing a magnetite-based magnetoreceptor cell. Avenues for further study are suggested, including the need for novel experimental, correlative, multimodal and multidisciplinary approaches. The aim of this review is to inspire new efforts towards understanding the cellular basis of magnetoreception in animals, which will in turn inform a new era of behavioural research based on first principles.