Interactions between top-down and bottom-up attention in barn owls (Tyto alba)

Anim Cogn. 2018 Mar;21(2):197-205. doi: 10.1007/s10071-017-1150-2. Epub 2017 Dec 6.


Selective attention, the prioritization of behaviorally relevant stimuli for behavioral control, is commonly divided into two processes: bottom-up, stimulus-driven selection and top-down, task-driven selection. Here, we tested two barn owls in a visual search task that examines attentional capture of the top-down task by bottom-up mechanisms. We trained barn owls to search for a vertical Gabor patch embedded in a circular array of differently oriented Gabor distractors (top-down guided search). To track the point of gaze, a lightweight wireless video camera was mounted on the owl's head. Three experiments were conducted in which the owls were tested in the following conditions: (1) five distractors; (2) nine distractors; (3) five distractors with one distractor surrounded by a red circle; or (4) five distractors with a brief sound at the initiation of the stimulus. Search times and number of head saccades to reach the target were measured and compared between the different conditions. It was found that search time and number of saccades to the target increased when the number of distractors was larger (condition 2) and when an additional irrelevant salient stimulus, auditory or visual, was added to the scene (conditions 3 and 4). These results demonstrate that in barn owls, bottom-up attention interacts with top-down attention to shape behavior in ways similar to human attentional capture. The findings suggest similar attentional principles in taxa that have been evolutionarily separated for 300 million years.

Keywords: Animal behavior; Attentional capture; Birds; Saliency; Stimulus selection.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Appetitive Behavior / physiology*
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Saccades
  • Strigiformes / physiology*