How Can Owls Rotate Their Heads 270 Degrees Without Dying?

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

For humans, sudden gyrations of the head and neck—whether they’re from car accidents, rollercoaster rides, or chiropracty gone awry—can tear blood vessel linings in the neck, leading to clots that can cause stroke. Not so in owls, which can quickly rotate their heads 270 degrees in either direction without damaging blood vessels or cutting off blood flow to the brain. How do they do it?

To solve the mystery, scientists at Johns Hopkins—led by medical illustrator Fabian de Kok-Mercado and neuroradiologist Philippe Gailloud—used angiography and CT scans to examine the anatomy of a dozen snowy, barred, and great horned owls that died from natural causes. They discovered that the birds are equipped with four biological adaptations that prevent injury from rapid rotational movement; their study appears in the latest issue of Science.

“Until now, brain imaging specialists like me who deal with human injuries caused by trauma to arteries in the head and neck have always been puzzled as to why rapid, twisting head movements did not leave thousands of owls lying dead on the forest floor from stroke," Gailloud said in a press release announcing the results of the study. "The carotid and vertebral arteries in the neck of most animals—including owls and humans—are very fragile and highly susceptible to even minor tears of the vessel lining.”

After x-raying, dissecting and analyzing blood vessels from the dead birds’ necks, the researchers injected dye into the dead owls’ arteries to mimic blood flow and manually turned their heads. What they found was surprising: Unlike in humans, whose arteries shrink as the head turns, the blood vessels just under the jaw at the base of the owls’ heads got increasingly larger as more of the dye entered, but before the fluid pooled into reservoirs. These contractile reservoirs, scientists say, are what allow owls to turn their heads so radically while still having enough blood to feed the eyes and the brain. What's more, a complex supporting vasular network minimizes interruptions in blood flow; the scientists discovered that owls have small vessel connections between the carotid and vertebral arteries that allow blood to flow between the two vessels—so even if one route is blocked by an extreme neck rotation, another can provide an uninterrupted blood flow to the brain.



Click to enlarge.

Bones in owls’ necks also have adaptations designed to facilitate extreme rotation. One of the major arteries feeding the birds' brains passes through holes in the vertebrae, called transverse foramine; the team found that these holes were 10 times larger in diameter than the artery. This extra space creates air pockets that allow the artery to move around when twisted; 12 of the vertebrae in the owls’ necks had this adaptation. "In humans, the vertebral artery really hugs the hollow cavities in the neck. But this is not the case in owls, whose structures are specially adapted to allow for greater arterial flexibility and movement," said de Kok-Mercado. Plus, the owls’ vertebral artery enters the neck higher than it does in other birds’—going in at the 12th cervical vertebrae, rather than the 14th—allowing for more slack.

"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," Gailloud said. "Extreme manipulations of the human head are really dangerous because we lack so many of the vessel-protecting features seen in owls." The team created a poster (above) that details their findings, and next plans to study hawk anatomy to see if those birds have similar adaptations for head rotation.

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

Some three decades after he earned his doctorate, in 1989, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article was originally published in 2013.

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