Owl research proves a real head-turner


If you’ve ever wondered how owls can do that impossible-looking move where they swivel their heads around, you are not alone. Owls can perform neck rotations of as much as 270 degrees, so a team at Johns Hopkins University in the US took a closer look at the flexible birdies to try and figure out how they can spin their heads around without damaging blood vessels or cutting off blood to the brain. They found that under those impressive feathers there lies some pretty remarkable anatomy.

In most animals with a backbone, including humans, the cervico-cephalic vessels are “notoriously sensitive to rotary motion” note the researchers in their winning entry to the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge 2012.

So how do owls manage to avoid squishing those important blood vessels?

The study used medical imaging to look closely at the necks of 12 deceased snowy, barred and great horned owls (they were not sacrificed for the study) and found interesting features in the bone structure and vascular network that could facilitate the remarkable rubbernecking.

They included a seeming ability to pool reservoirs of blood during rotation and also large holes in the vertebrae, which could provide air pockets to protect the artery passing through.

“In humans, the vertebral artery really hugs the hollow cavities in the neck,” says researcher Fabian de Kok-Mercado, in a statement. “But this is not the case in owls, whose structures are specially adapted to allow for greater arterial flexibility and movement.”

Extreme drilling: from Antarctica to Mars

Next time you fire up a drill to do some DIY, spare a thought for the slightly more extreme drilling operations in inhospitable parts of Earth, or even on another planet.

Drills are all the rage in Antarctica, where teams have been working to reach lakes under the ice. The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project recently hit the jackpot. Using a purpose-built hot-water drill, the team created a borehole down through 800 meters of ice to subglacial Lake Whillans on the southeastern edge of the Ross Sea.

They reached their goal at the end of January and have already pulled up water samples and found microbes in both the water and sediment, according to a news report on the Nature website.

“The data and samples collected have provided us with a glimpse of the Antarctic subglacial world,” says a report on the expedition’s website ( wissard.org). “We have no doubts that our results will transform the way we view Antarctica and pave the way for future national and international subglacial research efforts.”

In other drilling news, millions of kilometres away, the Mars rover Curiosity has been boring into the red planet’s surface at a patch of veined, flat-lying rock. It’s the first time a robot has drilled into a rock on Mars to collect a sample, according to Nasa.

Curiosity’s Twitter account (@MarsCuriosity) linked to an image of the borehole and said: “The real deal! First drilling on Mars to collect a sample for science is a success.”

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