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Journal Article

Emmetropization and optical development of the eye of the barn owl (Tyto alba)


Wagner,  H
Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Max Planck Society;
Former Department Comparative Neurobiology, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Max Planck Society;

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Schaeffel, F., & Wagner, H. (1996). Emmetropization and optical development of the eye of the barn owl (Tyto alba). Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 178(4), 491-498. doi:10.1007/BF00190179.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0013-EBEA-3

We have studied the development of the refractive state in young barn owls (Tyto alba pratincola). Strikingly, the eyes had severe refractive errors shortly after lid opening (which occurred around day 14 after hatching; average from 6 owls: 13.83 ± 1.47 days). Refractive errors vanished in the subsequent one or two weeks (Fig. 1, Fig. 2).

Refractive errors did not differ by more than 1 diopter (D) in both eyes of an individual (Fig. 2). Thus, non-visual control of eye growth was sufficient to produce non-random refractions. However, visual input was finally required to adjust the optical system to emmetropia.

Using in-vivo A-scan ultrasonography of ocular dimensions (Fig. 4A), photokeratometric measurements of corneal radius of curvature (Fig. 4B), and frozen sections of excised eyes (Fig. 3), we developed paraxial schematic eye models which described age-dependent changes in ocular parameters and were applicable through the ages from lid opening to fledging (Table 1). A schematic eye for the adult barn owl (European subspecies: Tyto alba alba) is also provided. Eye sizes in an adult owl of the American (Tyto alba pratincola) and the European subspecies (T. alba alba) were similar despite of different body weights (500 g and 350 g, respectively).

The schematic eyes were used to test which ocular parameters might have caused the recovery from refractive errors. However, none of the ocular dimensions measured underwent obvious changes in their growth curves as visual input became available. Apparently, coordinated growth of several ocular components produced emmetropia.

From the schematic eye model, the developmental changes in image brightness and image magnification were calculated (Fig. 5). In barn owl eyes, image size was not quite as extreme as in the tawny owl or the great horned owl. However, the image was larger and the f/number was lower than in diurnal birds of comparable weight (pigeon, chicken). The observation supports a conclusion that image size is maximised in owls to permit a higher degree of photoreceptor convergence for higher light sensitivity at dusk while spatial acuity remains comparable to diurnal birds with smaller eyes.