Scientists have discovered barn owls retain an acute sense of hearing into their old age, and have documented these findings in recent research. So, what’s it about these hooting birds that’s given them such a super-power? Perhaps understanding more about their genetic make-up might help treat seniors and others with human hearing problems in the foreseeable future.
Georg Klump of the University of Oldenburg, Germany, a researcher working on this study asserts that owls not only keep their hearing into old age, they have the ability to repair the inner-ear when it's damaged.
"Birds can repair their ears like (humans) can repair a wound," he said. "Humans cannot re-grow the sensory cells of the ears but birds can do this,” notes Klump.
Why humans can’t do the same is not clear. It seems that man lost this regenerative ability at some point in our evolution, making us prone to hearing loss when we age.
On average, by the age of 65, most humans can expect to lose more than 30dB in sensitivity at high frequencies.
Can you hear me now?
Assessing these studies, Dr Stefan Heller of Stanford University School of Medicine indicated work was underway to investigate the hearing differences between birds and mammals.
"To truly utilize this knowledge, we need to conduct comparative studies of birds and mammals that aim to find the differences in regenerative capacity, a topic that is actively pursued by a number of laboratories worldwide," Heller said.
As Helen Thompson of Science News explains, owls are able to regenerate tiny hair cells that line sensory portion of the eardrum, which is key in maintaining their sense of hearing.
To help human hearing loss in the future, these studies will continue to explore how owls are able regenerate these damaged nerves. But, until then, this team noted in their report, we humans “can only regard this capability of birds with great respect (if not with envy).”
This current research study was conducted on seven captive barn owls and was published in the journal, ‘Royal Society Proceedings B.’
While barn owls typically only live to 3-4 years in the wild, one participant in the study which reached the ripe old age of 23 demonstrated no signs of hearing loss. Whooo? A barn owl . . . that's who!
Primary Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B