Each of the animals in this exhibit is nocturnal, that is, active at night. In general, most mammals are nocturnal, as are some birds, especially owls. Mammals and owls that “work the night shift” possess specialized sensory adaptations. To improve night vision, many mammals have a well-developed reflective layer, the tapetum lucidum, behind the retina of the eye. This layer reflects light back through the eye, and creates the “eye shine” one sees when light meets a mammal’s eyes at night. Most mammals have specialized whiskers, called vibrissae, on their snouts and heads. Vibrissae provide tactile (sense of touch) information and play a role in the detection of obstacles.
While mammals have large ears that move to capture sounds, owls are capable of rotating their heads quickly to capture movement or sounds of prey, primarily small rodents, which are also active at night. An owl’s eyes are large and set into the front of its skull. Despite having to turn their heads to see in different directions, owls have excellent eyesight, which is especially important for hunting prey in limited light.