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Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK
Owls have 'surround sound'
Barn owl
Barn owls use sophisticated computing to hone in on their prey
Owls use "surround sound" hearing to pounce on their prey, biologists have revealed.

Even in the dark, the owl knows where to aim its claws by means of sophisticated processing of sound signals in the brain.

The squeak or rustle of a mouse is computed into a two-dimensional auditory map, according to a new study.

This enables the bird to home in more accurately on its next meal.

This discovery may have important implications for theoretical studies on information processing in the brain, say researchers at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

We use a similar system to create an auditory map, but the process is poorly understood.


Where's the mouse? Image: Roian Egnor
To investigate how owls locate their prey, a team led by Masakazu Konishi monitored the responses of 14 barn owls to pairs of sounds.

Recordings of the firing of cells in the brain suggest that the bird's hearing system creates a two-dimensional map based on incoming sounds.

Instead of simply adding up these brain signals like most nerve cells, the owl's auditory system multiplies the signals to give a more accurate indication of the timing and location of the sounds.

The research is reported in the journal Science.

"Examples of multiplication by neurons or neural circuits are scarce, although many computational models use this basic operation," write the authors.

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