Vieira P.G., de Sousa J.P. and Baron J.
The neuronal representation of luminance contrast has not been thoroughly studied in birds. Here we present a detailed quantitative analysis of the contrast response of 120 individual neurons recorded from the visual wulst of awake burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia). Stimuli were sine-wave gratings presented within the cell classical receptive field and optimized in terms of eye preference, direction of drift, and spatiotemporal frequency. As contrast intensity was increased from zero to near 100%, most cells exhibited a monotonic response profile with a compressive, at times saturating, nonlinearity at higher contrasts. However, contrast response functions were found to have a highly variable shape across cells. With the view to capture a systematic trend in the data, we assessed the performance of four plausible models (linear, power, logarithmic, and hyperbolic ratio) using classical goodness-of-fit measures and more rigorous statistical tools for multimodel inferences based on the Akaike information criterion. From this analysis, we conclude that a high degree of model uncertainty is present in our data, meaning that no single descriptor is able on its own to capture the heterogeneous nature of single-unit contrast responses in the wulst. We further show that the generalizability of the hyperbolic ratio model established, for example, in the primary visual cortex of cats and monkeys is not tenable in the owl wulst mainly because most neurons in this area have a much wider dynamic range that starts at low contrast. The challenge for future research will be to understand the functional implications of these findings.