Why barn owls don't lose their hearing with age

September 21, 2017, 3:04 p.m.
A distracted barn owl perched on a post
Photo: duangnapa_b/Shutterstock

It's one thing to be able to soar gracefully through the air — they're birds, after all — but barn owls also apparently have terrific hearing even as they enter old age. It just doesn't seem fair.

But those are the findings of a small study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Using seven barn owls of different ages, researchers trained them to fly from one perch to another on a sound cue, the BBC explains. Then they adjusted the sound's intensity to see if the older barn owls struggled to hear the cue compared to their whippersnapper counterparts. The older owls demonstrated little to no loss of hearing.

The secret to their long-lasting hearing is that they, like many birds, are able to naturally regenerate hair cells in the basilar papilla, the auditory canal in birds. With these ever-renewing cells, birds like barn owls are able to hear for years, which is a good thing as hearing is key for the birds' survival, both in avoiding predators and in catching prey.

As human ears are exposed to sounds over the years, our hearing degrades, and there's nothing we can really do to recover from it. The result? People ages 60 to 69 demonstrate the greatest amount of hearing loss, and many who are older than 70 don't take advantage of hearing aids, according to the National Institutes of Health. Learning how birds are able to naturally regenerate cells associated with hearing may help us change those statistics.

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