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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
Goldfish Can Get Depressed, Too
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Don’t believe what Pixar is trying to sell you: Fish are not exactly brimming with personality. In aquariums, they tend to swim in circles, sucking up fragments of food and ducking around miniature treasure chests. To a layperson, fish don’t appear to possess concepts of happy, or sad, or anything in between—they just seem to exist.

This, researchers say, is not quite accurate. Speaking with The New York Times, Julian Pittman, a professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Troy University, says that fish not only suffer from depression, they can be easily diagnosed. Zebrafish dropped into a new tank who linger at the bottom are probably sad; those who enthusiastically explore the upper half are not.

In Pittman’s studies, fish depression can be induced by getting them “drunk” on ethanol, then cutting off the supply, resulting in withdrawal. These fish mope around the tank floor until they’re given antidepressants, at which point they begin happily swimming near the surface again.

It’s impossible to correlate fish depression with that of a human, but Pittman believes the symptoms in fish—losing interest in exploring and eating—makes them viable candidates for exploring neuroscience and perhaps drawing conclusions that will be beneficial in the land-dwelling population.

In the meantime, you can help ward off fish blues by keeping them busy—having obstacles to swim through and intriguing areas of a tank to explore. Just like humans, staying active and engaged can boost their mental health.

[h/t The New York Times]

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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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