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How Do Parrots Mimic?

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Why can some birds mimic sounds with enough complexity to imitate human speech, while other birds simply chirp? 

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE finds that parrots’ ability to learn and imitate new sounds comes from a unique brain region that duplicated some 29 million years ago. Within this region is a pair of nested vocal learning centers that may be the key to parrots' ability to imitate sounds with uncanny accuracy.

Led by neurobiologists at the Duke University Medical Center, the researchers examined brain tissue from a wide range of parrot species capable of vocal learning, including budgies, cockatiels, lovebirds, macaws, and keas. They compared the structure of their brains to the brains of other birds, like songbirds and hummingbirds, which exhibit some signs of vocal learning but can’t imitate voices to the degree a parrot can.  

Image Credit:Courtesy of Jonathan E. Lee, Duke University

Parrots’ brains have two structures (see image above) devoted to vocal learning and imitation called a core and a shell, the latter of which is larger in birds known to be better imitators of human language. “Each (vocal learning center) has a core and a shell in the parrot, suggesting that the whole pathway has been duplicated,” study co-author Erich Jarvis, an associate professor of neurobiology at Duke, explains in a press release. The group hypothesizes that birds’ ability to imitate voices and sounds came about through this duplication of pathways in the brain, though they're not quite sure how the duplication might have occurred. 

The kea, a relatively ancient parrot species native to New Zealand, also has a crude shell structure, suggesting that the feature dates back to bird species at least 29 million years old. These shell regions have been known to scientists for decades, but it wasn’t clear if they had anything to do with vocal learning. 

[h/t: Eurekalert]

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Animals
Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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Animals
Squirrels Are Probably More Organized Than You, Study Finds
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Despite having a brain that's slightly bigger than the size of a peanut M&M, squirrels have a fascinating, razor-sharp instinct when it comes to survival. They know that acorns that are high in fat and sprout late are perfect for long-term storage, so they salvage them for winter and eat the less nutritionally dense white-oak acorns right away. They also tend to remember where they put their acorn stash rather than relying solely on smell. Like nature's perfect stunt performer, they can even fall out of trees in a way that minimizes physical damage. Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have unveiled a newly discovered part of a squirrel's hoarding strategy, Atlas Obscura reports.

The researchers tracked 45 wild fox squirrels on the UC-Berkeley campus for nearly two years. They made available to the squirrels four different types of nuts—walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts. Sometimes the animals were given a single type of nut, and other times the nuts were mixed. Either way, the squirrels promptly sorted and stored their food according to type—walnuts went in one hiding place, almonds in another, and so on.

This type of behavior is known as "chunking" and makes it easier to retrieve data in memory. In doing this, a squirrel won't have to visit several different places looking for pecans: They know just where the main supply is. Squirrels can stockpile up to 10,000 nuts a year, so it's essential for them to know which type of nut is where.

The study, published in Royal Society Open Science, also indicated that squirrels seem to understand nuts have weight, choosing to carry heavier acquisitions to a different location than lighter nuts.

Squirrels being squirrels, they were happy to be gifted an assortment of nuts during the experiment, but there was one wrinkle: Rather than stash them away, sometimes they'd just eat them on the spot.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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