Twist and Hoot: Secret of Owls’ Neck Rotation Revealed

Scientists have finally discovered how owls manage to rotate their heads up to 270 degrees without causing themselves serious physical damage.

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Scientists have finally discovered how owls manage to rotate their heads up to 270 degrees without causing themselves serious physical damage.

A new study has found that a combination of unique bone structure and a highly developed vascular system bestows extra mobility on the predators. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine examined snowy, barred and great horned owls for the research.

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“Our in-depth study of owl anatomy resolves one of the many interesting neurovascular medical mysteries of how owls have adapted to handle extreme head rotations,” said medical illustrator Fabian de Kok-Mercado.

“Our new study results show precisely what morphological adaptations are needed to handle such head gyrations and why humans are so vulnerable to osteopathic injury from chiropractic therapy. Extreme manipulations of the human head are really dangerous because we lack so many of the vessel-protecting features seen in owls.”

Sudden movements of the head and neck in humans have been known to stretch and tear blood vessel linings, producing clots that can break off and lead to death through embolism or stroke.

The first anatomical variation researchers discovered was in the owl neck, where one of the major arteries feeding the brain passes through bony holes in the vertebrae. The hollow cavities were approximately 10 times wider than the artery traveling through.

The extra space creates a set of air pockets that cushions the artery allowing it to move around when twisted, claim the experts. Owls’ forward-facing eyes, gives them better depth perception and vision, but they are unable to move their eyes within their sockets to a great extent — which means they must turn their entire head to see in a different direction. The adaptation gives the birds a huge range of vision without having to move their bodies and risk being spotted by potential prey.

(MORE: Hedwig, Is That You? Snowy Owls Apparate Into the U.S.)

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