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© Jana Müller
© Jana Müller

Scientists Say Some Birds Are Just as Smart as Apes

© Jana Müller
© Jana Müller

It’s time to put the “birdbrain” fallacy to rest. Researchers say birds are just as smart as apes and other mammals, according to findings published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science.

Our smarts—and the smarts of chimpanzees, gorillas, and other mammals—can be traced back to a region of the brain called the neocortex. A number of important and sophisticated mental tasks take place in the neocortexfrom spatial reasoning and motor skills to learning and using language.

But there’s no neocortex in a bird’s brain. And so, for many years, scientists assumed that the absence of this region meant that birds were stupid.

We know now that that’s not true. For one thing, researchers have observed birds performing incredibly complex behaviors, both in the wild and in the lab. For another, it’s not like birds’ heads are just empty. Birds have a structure called a pallium where we have a neocortex. The authors of this study assert that the pallium may be just as good as the neocortex, especially in parrots and corvids (crows, ravens, jays, and their relatives).

Clever, clever bird. Image credit: J.G. Keulemans via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Neuroscientist Onur Güntürkün and cognitive biologist Thomas Bugnyar reviewed dozens of recent scientific articles on bird anatomy and cognition, paying special attention to sophisticated cognitive processes like object permanence, delaying gratification, and reasoning. They concluded that birds are indeed capable of complex mental tasks. "The mental abilities of corvids and parrots are as sophisticated and diverse as those of apes," Güntürkün said in a press statement. If he’s right, then the pallium and the neocortex serve similar purposes.

"Is it possible, that very different brain mechanisms for complex cognitive processes have developed independently in birds and in mammals in the 300 million years of their existence?" Güntürkün asked.

This is a hypothetical question; Güntürkün is pretty sure the answer is “yes.” After all, it's not unheard of. It’s called convergent evolution, and it occurs when two separate organisms or types of organisms evolve traits with a similar function.

The bottom line is that mammal intelligence is not the only intelligence out there. As Güntürkün concluded: "What is clear is that the multi-layered mammalian cortex is not required for complex cognition."

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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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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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