Does retinal configuration make the head and eyes of foveate birds move?

Sci Rep. 2017 Jan 12:7:38406. doi: 10.1038/srep38406.


Animals move their heads and eyes to compensate for movements of the body and background, search, fixate, and track objects visually. Avian saccadic head/eye movements have been shown to vary considerably between species. We tested the hypothesis that the configuration of the retina (i.e., changes in retinal ganglion cell density from the retinal periphery to the center of acute vision-fovea) would account for the inter-specific variation in avian head/eye movement behavior. We characterized retinal configuration, head movement rate, and degree of eye movement of 29 bird species with a single fovea, controlling for the effects of phylogenetic relatedness. First, we found the avian fovea is off the retinal center towards the dorso-temporal region of the retina. Second, species with a more pronounced rate of change in ganglion cell density across the retina generally showed a higher degree of eye movement and higher head movement rate likely because a smaller retinal area with relatively high visual acuity leads to greater need to move the head/eye to align this area that contains the fovea with objects of interest. Our findings have implications for anti-predator behavior, as many predator-prey interaction models assume that the sensory system of prey (and hence their behavior) varies little between species.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / anatomy & histology
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Fovea Centralis / anatomy & histology
  • Head Movements / physiology*
  • Phylogeny
  • Retina / anatomy & histology*
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / cytology
  • Visual Acuity