Investigated how owls hear, locate their prey
Masakazu Konishi, who has died aged 87, was a scientist whose investigations into how birds develop their songs and sense of hearing made him pre-eminent in the field of neuroethology — the study of the relationship between animals’ nervous systems and their observable behaviour.
Konishi was among the first to deploy technology that could map the neural pathways in the avian brain.
In 1975 when he became a professor at the California Institute of Technology, Konishi arrived with 21 owls and a determination to build upon the work of the U.S. biologist Roger Payne, on how barn owls use their sense of hearing to locate prey.
A soundproof acoustic chamber was built, equipped with a remote-controlled loudspeaker that moved around the owl’s head. Working with Eric Knudsen, Konishi discovered that certain auditory neurons in owls’ brains responded only when a sound was coming from a particular location.
This finding allowed the two to plot an “auditory space map” in the brain that allows owls to determine an object’s location with speed and precision, and thus to hunt even in complete darkness.
It proved to be a key step toward understanding how the brain of any animal species learns to read its environment, allowing the instantaneous recognition of (for example) faces.
In 2005 Konishi and Knudsen received the Neuroscience Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation.
Masakazu Konishi was born in Kyoto, Japan on Feb. 17, 1933. He learned English through classes at the American Cultural Center in Sapporo, and through making friends with U.S. army officers and diplomats.
For his PhD he studied birdsong by manipulating recordings of birds and playing them back to see how his test subjects reacted. He focused on how altering auditory feedback — by deafening birds with white noise or surgically removing the cochleas in their ears — affected their responses.
His experiments showed that deafened songbirds produce abnormal songs, and that the effect is most profound when deafness is induced at a young age.
He received numerous awards, including the 1990 International Prize for Biology.
Konishi — who Westernized his first name to Mark — became Caltech’s Bing professor of behavioural biology in 1980, holding the position until his retirement in 2013.
In later life he enjoyed training border collies to herd sheep.