If ageing humans had ears like those of barn owls they would never need hearing aids, scientists have shown.
The birds, whose sensitivity to sound helps them locate prey, suffer no hearing loss as they get older. Like other birds – but unlike mammals, including humans – they are able to regenerate cells in their inner ears.
Aged birds experience minimal hearing loss, but the new research shows that the barn owl suffers no meaningful loss at all. In contrast, a human will have lost more than 30 decibels of sensitivity to high-sound frequencies by the age of 65.
Testing showed no statistical difference between the hearing ability of young and very elderly captive barn owls up to 23 years old.
The team, led by Dr Ulrike Langemann from the University of Oldenburg in Germany, wrote in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: “Overall, our data … indicate that barn owl ears do not deteriorate with age.
“The lack of hearing loss in our old barn owls is remarkable, given that the average life expectancy of barn owls is rather low.”
In the wild, the birds have an average life span of only three or four years.
Understanding the preservation of hearing in birds could lead to new treatment options for deaf humans, the scientists said.