"Baby Steps" Best for Older Learners, Says Owl Study

<< Back to Page 1   Page 2 of 2

The researchers hoped to investigate whether the owls' brains would adapt—rewiring the neural circuitry over time—to align sounds with their new visual field.

Many Spectacles, Small Steps

Linkenhoker measured the responses of the bespectacled owls' neurons in a region of the birds' brain called the optic tectum, where visual and auditory maps merge. From this data she could determine whether the animals had adapted enough to map a sound to the correct location in their altered visual field.

Within two months of wearing the 23-degree prisms, young owls had fully adapted.

But even after four months of wearing the spectacles, the adults had only adapted about 10 percent as much as the juveniles.

Then Linkenhoker tried another approach. Instead of a one-step, 23-degree shift, Linkenhoker made a series of spectacles that incrementally shifted vision from 6 to 11 to 17 degrees.

With these gradual shifts the adults ramped up their learning curve and achieved slightly more than 50 percent of the juveniles' adjustments.

One overachieving adult owl even made the jump from 17 to 23 degree lenses—fully adapting to the shifted visual field, just like the youngsters.

Adaptable vs. Reliable

"Knudsen has shown that adult owls are incapable of large reorganization of neural circuitry in their brains in response to a large change," says Michael Stryker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. "But the study shows that the brain can be coaxed into great plasticity in adulthood with a specially designed training regimen."

The life-stage change makes sense to Linkenhoker. "In the adult, the brain gives up plasticity to gain more reliability," she says. "Whereas for juveniles it is important to adapt quickly, responding to the changing world around them."

In humans, a stroke or an accident can cause the loss of certain skills like speech. But, with the right incremental training, victims may be able to relearn more than ever thought possible, researchers said.

"There's something about successfully performing a task that allows us to build up skills—we reinforce what we know and then expand from this point," Knudsen says.

The lesson from the bespectacled barn owls is that even old—or impaired—creatures can learn new tricks if they proceed by small degrees.

Recent Bird Stories by National Geographic News

Birder's Journal: It's Survey Season for Breeding Birds
Birder's Journal: Chasing Down Warblers
Africa's New Safari Trend Is for the Birds
Decline of Red-Tailed Hawks Has U.S. Scientists Puzzled
A Reason to Give Thanks: The Return of the Wild Turkey
State Bird of Hawaii Unmasked as Canadian
Harry Potter Owl Scenes Alarm Animal Advocates
Ultrarare Woodpecker Spurs Ultimate Birding Trip
"Extinct" Woodpecker Still Elusive, But Signs Are Good
Extinct Dodo Related to Pigeons, DNA Shows
Bird Extinctions May Hold Clues to Human Survival, Author Says
Tagging Hobbles Penguins, Some Researchers in Cape Town Contend
Patagonia Penguins Make a Comeback
Penguin Decline in Antarctica Linked With Climate Change
Ice Buildup Hampers Penguin Breeding in AntarcticaEvolutionary Oddities: Duck Sex Organ, Lizard Tongue
Some Ducks Let Young Be Raised by Relatives
Turkey Vultures Flourish in the U.S. Thanks to Road Kill
Forecasting the Journey South

National Geographic Bird Resources

Bald Eagles: Come Back From the Brink
Experience the Sights and Sounds of Eagles

Nationalgeographic.com Bird-Watching Sites

North Carolina's Outer Banks
South Dakota's Black Hills
Santa Fe Area
San Francisco Area
Rocky Mountain National Park
Philadelphia Area
New York City Area
Chicago Area
Boston Area
Yellowstone National Park
Florida Keys Area

From the National Geographic Store

Guide to North American Birds
Portable Birdsong Identifier
Birder's Journal
Songbirds Puzzle

<< Back to Page 1   Page 2 of 2


SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES

ADVERTISEMENT

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S PHOTO OF THE DAY

NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.