Differences in foraging ecology determine variation in visual fields in ibises and spoonbills (Threskiornithidae)

Graham Martin, Stephen Portugal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

16 Citations (Scopus)


Variations in visual field topography among birds have been interpreted as adaptations to the specific perceptual challenges posed by the species' foraging ecology. To test this hypothesis we determined visual field topography in four bird species which have different foraging ecologies but are from the same family: Puna Ibis Plegadis ridgwayi (probes for prey in the soft substrates of marsh habitats), Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita (surface pecks for prey in dry terrestrial habitats), African Spoonbill Platalea alba and Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia (bill-sweeps for prey in shallow turbid waters). All four species employ tactile cues provided by bill-tip organs for prey detection. We predicted that the visual fields of these species would show general features similar to those found in other birds whose foraging is guided by tactile cues from the bill (i.e. bill falling outside the frontal binocular field and comprehensive visual coverage of the celestial hemisphere). However, the visual fields of all four species showed general features characteristic of birds that take food directly in the bill under visual guidance (i.e. a narrow and vertically long binocular field in which the projection of the bill tip is approximately central and with a blind area above and behind the head). Visual fields of the two spoonbills were very similar but differed from those of the ibises, which also differed between themselves. In the spoonbills, there was a blind area below the bill produced by the enlarged spatulate bill tip. We discuss how these differences in visual fields are related to the perceptual challenges of these birds' different foraging ecologies, including the detection, identification and ingestion of prey. In particular we suggest that all species need to see binocularly around the bill and between the opened mandibles for the identification of caught prey items and its transport to the back of the mouth. Our findings support the hypothesis that sensory challenges associated with differences in foraging ecology, rather than shared ancestry or the control of locomotion, are the main determinants of variation in visual field topography in birds.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)662-671
Number of pages10
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2011


  • bill-tip organ
  • prey identification
  • foraging ecology
  • vision
  • binocular vision
  • tactile sensitivity
  • prey capture
  • visual field


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