Strange Symmetries #23: Convergent Earvolution

Although it’s not visible externally, owls have one of the most striking modern examples of asymmetry. The ears of many species are uneven, with the right ear opening positioned higher up than the left, giving them the ability to pinpoint the sounds of their prey much more accurately.

But surprisingly this isn’t a unique anatomical trait that only ever evolved once in their common ancestor.

Instead, multiple different lineages of owls have actually convergently evolved wonky ears somewhere between four and seven separate times.

The boreal owl (Aegolius funereus), also known as Tengmalm’s owl, is a small 25cm long (~10″) true owl found across much of the northern parts of both Eurasia and North America. While most other owls’ asymmetrical ear openings are formed just by soft tissue, the boreal owl’s lopsided ears are actually visible in the bones of its skull.

But despite how many times owls have convergently evolved asymmetrical ears, and how successful this adaptation has been for them, for a long time it seemed to be something that no other animals have ever mimicked.

In the early 2000s asymmetric ears were reported in the skulls of some troodontid dinosaurs, which seem to have been nocturnal hearing-based hunters similar to owls, but proper details on this feature still haven’t been formally published.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, another example was finally announced.

The night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) is a small ground-dwelling parrot found in Australia, close to the same size as the boreal owl at around 22cm long (~9″). Critically endangered and very elusive, it’s rarely seen and little is known about it – and it was presumed extinct for much of the 20th century, until more recent sightings of living individuals confirmed that the species is still hanging on.

Recent studies of preserved museum specimens have revealed that it seems to have poor night vision but excellent hearing, and that its right ear opening is noticeably asymmetrical, bulging out sideways from its skull. Much like owls the night parrot relies on acute directional hearing to navigate in darkness, but since its diet consists mainly of seeds it’s probably not using this ability to locate food sources. Instead it may be listening out to keep track of the precise locations of other parrots, and for the approach of predators – so its sharp sense of hearing may be the reason this unique bird has so far just barely managed to survive the presence of invasive cats and foxes.