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The Unusual Science of Seeing with Sound – The Marginalian

What It’s Like to Be an Owl: The Strange Science of Seeing with Sound

“We want one other and a wiser and maybe a extra mystical idea of animals,” the good nature author Henry Beston wrote in his pretty century-old meditation on otherness and the net of life. “In a world older and extra full than ours they transfer completed and full, gifted with extensions of the senses now we have misplaced or by no means attained, dwelling by voices we will by no means hear.”

Within the century since, now we have come to unravel a number of the wonders of the non-human sensorium — from the tetrachromatic imaginative and prescient of bees to the choral communication of migrating birds to the magnificent eye of the scallop. However few animal sensoria are extra marvelously aside from the power of owls to see with sound, partway between synesthesia and superior mathematical computation.

Artwork by JooHee Yoon from Beastly Verse

The visible system of owls is already astonishing sufficient, 100 instances extra light-sensitive than that of a pigeon and able to seeing ultraviolet mild. Their monumental tubular eyes admit extra daylight and have extra cells to course of photons than the eyes of birds with a lot sharper daytime imaginative and prescient. Whereas the retinae of most birds are dominated by cones — photoreceptors tuned to vibrant mild and tasked with coloration detection — the retinae of owls include greater than 90% rods, tuned to low mild and delicate to motion: the weather of looking at evening.

And but probably the most extraordinary side of owl imaginative and prescient takes place not of their eyes however of their ears — theirs is likely one of the most delicate auditory methods in nature, linked to one of the crucial computationally spectacular brains.

In 1978, neurobiologists Eric Knudsen and Masakazu Konishi got down to illuminate its mysteries. Enlisting the assistance of an engineer who had labored on NASA’s Viking spacecraft — humanity’s historic attain for Mars — they despatched a loudspeaker circling the top of an owl alongside a light-rail, touring at a relentless distance from the owl’s head: half halo and half ring of Saturn. Observing the neural response, they found one thing by no means earlier than seen in nature — specific auditory neurons within the owl’s mind had been responding solely when a sound was coming from a specific course: geolocation not by satellite tv for pc however by sound, doing overground what cetaceans do underwater.

Artwork by Jackie Morris from The Misplaced Spells

Recounting the analysis in her altogether fascinating e book What an Owl Is aware of: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds (public library), Jennifer Ackerman writes:

By evaluating the responses to sound by neurons within the cochlea of each ears, the mind builds a sort of multidimensional map of auditory area. This enables owls to repair the placement of prey with velocity and precision.


Animals have mind maps for imaginative and prescient and contact, however these are constructed from visible photographs and contact receptors that map onto the mind by way of direct point-to-point projections. With ears, it’s fully completely different. The mind compares data obtained from every ear in regards to the timing and depth of a sound after which interprets the variations right into a unified notion of a single sound issuing from a selected area of area. The ensuing auditory map permits owls to “see” the world in two dimensions with their ears.

Owls from The Edinburgh Journal of Pure Historical past and of the Bodily Sciences, 1830s. (Out there as a print and stationery playing cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

This analysis laid the inspiration of learning how all animal brains appraise their setting by way of sound, resulting in the event of a brand new diagnostic take a look at for listening to loss in human infants — one thing notoriously tough to check in nonverbal creatures. However the owl mind itself remained a frontier of fascination.

As different neuroscientists picked up the thread, they found {that a} barn owl’s mind performs advanced mathematical computations to perform this spatial specificity, not merely including and multiplying indicators however partaking in a sort of probabilistic statistical calculation often known as Bayesian inference. (If there’s something to settle the controversy about whether or not people have found or invented arithmetic, right here is blazing proof that this can be a elementary language of nature in fixed dialogue with dwelling methods.)

Additional analysis into the mind anatomy of owls revealed one thing much more astonishing: a part of their listening to nerve branches off into the optical heart of the mind, in order that auditory enter is processed by the visible system — actually a means of seeing with sound.

Owl from Lydekker’s 1893 pure historical past of owls. (Out there as a print and a face masks, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

Couple the science of the owl with its poetry in Mary Oliver’s pretty meditation on the owl as a lens on the interconnectedness of life, then revisit the poetic science of how imaginative and prescient formed consciousness.

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