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Machines Like Us

How can an owl rotate its head without cutting off blood?

Monday, 04 February 2013

Medical illustrators and neurological imaging experts at Johns Hopkins have figured out how night-hunting owls can almost fully rotate their heads—by as much as 270 degrees in either direction—without damaging the delicate blood vessels in their necks and heads, and without cutting off blood supply to their brains.

In what may be the first use of angiography, CT scans and medical illustrations to examine the anatomy of a dozen of the big-eyed birds, the Johns Hopkins team, led by medical illustrator Fabian de Kok-Mercado, M.A., a recent graduate student in the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, found four major biological adaptations designed to prevent injury from rotational head movements. The variations are all to the strigid animals' bone structure and vascular network needed to support its top-heavy head. The team's findings are acknowledged in the Feb.1 issue of the journal Science, as first-place prize winners in the posters and graphics category of the National Science Foundation's 2012 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge.

"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," says study senior investigator and interventional neuroradiologist Philippe Gailloud, M.D. "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," adds Gailloud, an associate professor in the Russell H. Morgan Department of Radiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Sudden gyrations of the head and neck in humans have been known to stretch and tear blood vessel linings, producing clots that can break off and cause a deadly embolism or stroke. Researchers say these injuries are commonplace, often resulting from whiplashing car accidents, but also after jarring roller coaster rides and chiropractic manipulations gone awry.

To solve the puzzle, the Johns Hopkins team studied the bone structure and complex vasculature in the heads and necks of snowy, barred and great horned owls after their deaths from natural causes. An injectible contrast dye was used to enhance X-ray imaging of the birds' blood vessels, which were then meticulously dissected, drawn and scanned to allow detailed analysis.

The most striking team finding came after researchers injected dye into the owls' arteries, mimicking blood flow, and manually turned the animals' heads. Blood vessels at the base of the head, just under the jaw bone, kept getting larger and larger, as more of the dye entered, and before the fluid pooled in reservoirs. This contrasted starkly with human anatomical ability, where arteries generally tend to get smaller and smaller, and do not balloon as they branch out.