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Urban Birds Are Sharper Than Country Birds, Study Suggests

YouTube // McGill University

As Newsies and Pizza Rat can tell you: you’ve got to be clever and tough if you want to make it in the city. Sure, it’s common knowledge, but it’s also scientifically true, at least for birds. Ornithologists say that urban finches are both smarter and more disease-resistant than their country cousins. The researchers recently published their report on the subject in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Jean-Nicolas Audet and his colleagues wanted to compare the birds' problem-solving skills and their immunities. To do so, they needed to find members of the same species living in two different environments. With populations of bullfinches present in both developed and open areas, as well as an ornithological research station, Barbados made a perfect test site for them.

The researchers used gentle-capture nets called mist nets to capture 53 Barbados bullfinches (Loxigilla barbadensis) from eight areas on the island—four rural and four urban. They brought the birds back to the lab and gave them a few days to settle in. Once the birds were acclimated, the tests commenced.

Audet and his colleagues rigged up a number of bird problems, each with a seed goal. In one puzzle, a bird could only reach a cup of seeds by using a stick to pull the cup closer. In another, the bird had to remove a lid or pull a hook to open a little drawer full of seeds. Each bird went up to 15 rounds with each test, with a researcher recording their successes and failures.

To test the finches’ disease resistance, the researchers injected each bird with a tiny dose of an immune-activating protein called phytohemagglutinin (PHA). Animals with strong immune systems who are given PHA will have a little inflammation at the injection site, so the ornithologists measured each bird’s wing to check for swelling.

When all the tests had been scored and the results analyzed, the city birds emerged as clear winners in both cleverness and immunity—a fact that surprised the researchers.

"Since urban birds were better at problem-solving,” Audet said in a press statement, “we expected that there would be a trade-off and that the immunity would be lower, just because we assumed that you can't be good at everything. It seems that in this case, the urban birds have it all."

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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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