Owls see the world much like we do

The New York Times reports:

Owl eyes are round, but not spherical. These immobile, tubular structures sit on the front of an owl’s face like a pair of built-in binoculars. They allow the birds to focus in on prey and see in three dimensions, kind of like humans — except we don’t have to turn our whole heads to spot a slice of pizza beside us.

Although owls and humans both have binocular vision, it has been unclear whether these birds of prey process information they collect from their environments like humans, because their brains aren’t as complex. But in a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience on Monday, scientists tested the ability of barn owls to find a moving target among various shifting backgrounds, a visual processing task earlier tested only in primates.

The research suggests that barn owls, with far simpler brains than humans and other primates, also group together different elements as they move in the same direction, to make sense of the world around them.

“Humans are not so different from birds as you may think,” said Yoram Gutfreund, a neuroscientist at Technion Israel Institute of Technology who led the study with colleagues from his university and RWTH Aachen University in Germany.

A critical part of perception is being able to distinguish an object from its background. One way humans do this is by grouping elements of a scene together to perceive each part as a whole. In some cases, that means combining objects that move similarly, like birds flying in a flock, or the single bird that breaks away from it.

Scientists have generally considered this type of visual processing as a higher level task that requires complex brain structures. As such, they’ve only studied it in humans and primates. [Continue reading…]

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