Hoot, hoot: Scientists explain how owls spin their heads

Boris the Siberian Eagle in Herefordshire. Credit: David Jones/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Scientists have solved the mystery of how owls are able to swivel their heads almost full circle.

Bone structure and blood vessels allow for the movement, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, USA.

Dr Philippe Gailloud, one of the scientists on the project, said: “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.”

A tawny owl at the Working for Wildlife reserve in Somerset. Credit: Barry Batchelor/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Wide tunnels in the neck bones of owls allow for their arteries to move around when twisted, the research found, while small connections between the carotid and vertebral arteries permit blood to flow between the two.

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. Extreme manipulations of the human head are really dangerous because we lack so many of the vessel-protecting features seen in owls.