Sound-localization experiments with barn owls in virtual space: influence of interaural time difference on head-turning behavior

J Assoc Res Otolaryngol. 2001 Mar;2(1):1-21. doi: 10.1007/s101620010039.


Specific cues in a sound signal are naturally linked to certain parameters in acoustic space. In the barn owl, interaural time difference (ITD) varies mainly with azimuth, while interaural level difference (ILD) varies mainly with elevation. Previous data suggested that ITD is indeed the main cue for azimuthal sound localization in this species, while ILD is an important cue for elevational sound localization. The exact contributions of these parameters could be tested only indirectly because it was not possible to generate a stimulus that contained all relevant spatial information on the one hand, and allowed for a clean separation of these parameters on the other hand. Virtual auditory worlds offer this opportunity. Here we show that barn owls responded to azimuthal variations in virtual space in the same way as to variations in free-field stimuli. We interpret the increase of turning angle with sound-source azimuths (up to +/- 140 degrees) such that the owls did not experience front/back confusions with virtual stimuli. We then separated the influence of ITD from the influence of all other stimulus parameters by fixing the overall ITD in virtual stimuli to a constant value (+100 micros or +100 micros) while leaving all other sound characteristics unchanged. This manipulation influenced both azimuthal and elevational components of head arms. Since the owls' azimuthal head-turn amplitude always resembled the value signified by the ITD, these data demonstrated that azimuthal sound localization is influenced only by ITD both in the frontal hemisphere and in large parts of the rear hemisphere. ILDs did not have an influence on azimuthal components of head turns. While response latency to normal virtual stimuli was found to be largely independent of stimulus position, response delays of the head turns became longer if the ITD information pointed into a different hemisphere as the other cues of the sounds.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dominance, Cerebral
  • Ear / physiology*
  • Head / physiology*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Psychoacoustics
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reference Values
  • Sound Localization / physiology*
  • Strigiformes / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • User-Computer Interface*