Mouse Eyes Come With Built-In Bird Detectors

By Sophie Bushwick | August 13, 2012 3:09 pm


As soon as you open your eyes in the morning, the cells of your retina start sending frantic messages to your brain. “It’s sunny today! That toast looks done!” One set of cells in particular, the high-resolution retinal cells, are constantly working to give your brain the most detailed, up-to-date picture of your surroundings. But in a mouse’s eye, researchers have recently discovered, the high-resolution cells seem to be on vacation.

That is, until a predator flies by.

To get a sense of how mice use their high-resolution cells, the researchers had first strapped a camera to a rat’s head and let it run around an enclosure. Then they projected this video of what a rodent sees in its daily life onto mouse retinas, while monitoring the cells’ electrical responses. They were surprised to find that while many of the retinal cells reacted to the images, the high-resolution ones remained unresponsive.

But when the researchers showed the mouse retinas silhouettes representing birds of prey in flight, the high-resolution cells began to buzz with activity. In mice, then, high-resolution retinal cells don’t provide a detailed view of the surrounding environment  like they do in our eyes (and the eyes of most other mammals). Instead, they act as detectors for a specific feature, namely aerial predators.

The mouse retinas reacted most strongly when the bird silhouette covered the center of their visual field, a situation that occurs when the predator is a few seconds away from its prey. For the mouse, this visual klaxon from its retinal cells could be the difference between life and dinner. But when the bird silhouette drew so close that the mouse would have less than half a second of escape time, the retinal cells stopped firing.

“If the animal has not already initiated escape at that time,” the researchers write, “its retina will soon cease functioning permanently.”

Image of mouse via Shutterstock

MORE ABOUT: bird, eye, mouse, predator, prey, retina
  • Greg King

    How would individual retinal cells know it was a bird-type image without first sending information to the brain for processing? Seems interesting, maybe through horizontal interaction with other nearby retinal cells in certain patterns?

  • David_42

    Rats? Mice? There is a difference, Sophie.

  • floodmouse

    Maybe their camera was too big to fit on the mouse’s head, like the antlers in the movie “Scrooged” . . . After all, you can’t ask a mouse to do a rat’s job.

  • Anthy Hellmers

    Maybe mice don’t need to see their world in high resolution to be stimulated? Who knows what they are really seeing even if the camera on their heads captures what direction they are ‘looking’in ? I do find the article thought provoking.

  • Rusten

    @David_42, from the paper:
    “If the W3 cells act as general pixel encoders, they should respond under the stimuli that an animal encounters commonly in
    nature. To this end we used videos recorded from a camera
    mounted on the head of a freely moving rat (27). The camera
    was aimed at the lower half of the visual field, and the video was
    acquired with a wireless transmitter, leaving the animal free to
    roam through an enclosure. Despite the size difference between
    rats and mice, these movies provide a good sample of visual
    inputs from locomotion in a natural environment. They are
    dominated by optic flow that results from translation and rotation of the animal.”


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