Moving Objects in the Barn Owl's Auditory World

Ulrike Langemann, Bianca Krumm, Katharina Liebner, Rainer Beutelmann, Georg M. Klump

Barn owls are keen hunters of moving prey. They have evolved an auditory system with impressive anatomical and physiological specializations for localizing their prey. Here we present behavioural data on the owl's sensitivity for discriminating acoustic motion direction in azimuth that, for the first time, allow a direct comparison of neuronal and perceptual sensitivity for acoustic motion in the same model species. We trained two birds to report a change in motion direction within a series of repeating wideband noise stimuli. For any trial the starting point, motion direction, velocity (53-2400°/s), duration (30-225 ms) and angular range (12-72°) of the noise sweeps were randomized. Each test stimulus had a motion direction being opposite to that of the reference stimuli. Stimuli were presented in the frontal or the lateral auditory space. The angular extent of the motion had a large effect on the owl's discrimination sensitivity allowing a better discrimination for a larger angular range of the motion. In contrast, stimulus velocity or stimulus duration had a smaller, although significant effect. Overall there was no difference in the owls' behavioural performance between "inward" noise sweeps (moving from lateral to frontal) compared to "outward" noise sweeps (moving from frontal to lateral). The owls did, however, respond more often to stimuli with changing motion direction in the frontal compared to the lateral space. The results of the behavioural experiments are discussed in relation to the neuronal representation of motion cues in the barn owl auditory midbrain.