In a nutshell: Hummingbird brain cells that process visual changes due to body motion respond to all directions of movement. The same cells in other birds only respond to horizontal movement.

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Animals use their eyes to guide movement, to tell them where they are going, to avoid crashing, and to correct posture to prevent falls.

In most birds, cells in the lentiformis mesencephalic brain area or LM play a critical role processing horizontal motion of the image in front of their eyes. This makes sense, as most birds fly parallel to the ground most of the time.

But not the hummingbird. They are nature’s helicopters, hovering sideways, backwards, even upside down as they go about their business.

And the hummingbird LM reflects this. Previously, researchers found that the LM area is disproportionately large — that was odd, because it’s in a part of the brain responsible for very fundamental functions, which don’t usually change much between species.

Now, a Canadian research team has discovered that hummingbird LM cells sense motion that is faster compared to other birds, and in a range of directions.

The adaptation likely helps the hummingbird to precision hover around and between flowers, suggests Michael Ibbotson of the Brain Function CoE at Melbourne University, in this review of the finding.

Ibbotson, M.R. (2017) Visual Neuroscience: Unique Neural System for Flight Stabilization in Hummingbirds. Current Biology, 27(2), R58 – R61

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