Why Are Some Birds So Smart? Their Brains Are Neurally Dense

Alastair Rae via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Alastair Rae via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Little by little, the well-established myth of the stupid bird is crumbling. Just a few months ago, researchers reported that some birds are as smart as apes. Now another team of scientists say that bird brains pack way more brain cells per square inch than those of primates and other mammals. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The brains of humans and apes include a structure called the neocortex, which houses some of our most sophisticated thought processes and mental tasks. Birds don’t have neocortices at all, and so for years, scientists assumed that meant they were unintelligent. As it turns out, we were just being self-centered. Birds don’t need neocortices; a similar structure called a pallium does their mental heavy lifting.

One bird stereotype is accurate: Compared to, say, a human or a chimpanzee, birds do have little brains. Yet “corvids and some parrots are capable of cognitive feats comparable to those of great apes,” the authors write. “How do birds achieve impressive cognitive prowess with walnut-sized brains?”

To find out, the researchers examined the brains of 28 different bird species, from tiny zebra finches to towering emus. They examined the birds’ brain tissue at a cellular level, measuring the number and distribution of neurons in each region. They compared the neural density to that found in the brains of mice, rats, primates, and artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates).

As it turns out, when it comes to brain cell density, birds have them all beat. The pallium was crammed wall-to-wall with brain cells. Parrot and songbird brains contained twice as many neurons as similar-sized primate brains, and two to four times as many neurons as those of rodents. Birds also dedicate way more brainpower to their pallia than we do to our neocortices. The pallium houses 33 to 55 percent of a songbird’s brain cells, and 46 to 61 percent of a parrot’s. By comparison, the human neocortex hosts only 19 percent of our brain cells.

Senior author Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, said in a press statement: “In designing brains, nature has two parameters it can play with: the size and number of neurons and the distribution of neurons across different brain centers, and in birds we find that nature has used both of them.”

These findings open a new pathway in understanding how brains evolve. Generally speaking, in order to advance, brains have had to get bigger, and bigger brains are linked to more cognitive capacity. But, Herculano-Houzel said, “bird brains show that there are other ways to add neurons: keep most neurons small and locally connected and only allow a small percentage to grow large enough to make the longer connections."

But no evolutionary advantage is truly free. Does a denser bird brain require more energy to run than ours, which are spacious by comparison? If so, where is that energy coming from?

“Something I love about science is that when you answer one question, it raises a number of new questions,” said Herculano-Houzel.

Why Do Dogs Lick?

iStock/MichaelSvoboda
iStock/MichaelSvoboda

​One of the more slightly annoying things our dogs do (or most adorable, depending on who you ask) involves their tongue obsessively licking every crevice of every spot possible in pretty much the whole world. From our faces to our furniture to themselves, some dogs are absolutely in love with licking anything and everything. Although it can be cute at first, it quickly gets pretty gross. So why do they do it?

According to ​Vetstreet, your pup's incessant licking is mostly their way of trying to show affection. When we pick up our dogs or give them attention, chances are we kiss or pat their heads, along with petting their fur. Their way to show love back to us is by licking.

However, there are other reasons your dog might be obsessively licking—including as a way to get attention. Licking can be a learned behavior for dogs, as they see that when they lick their owner, they get more attention. The behavior can seem like something humans want which, to an extent, it is.

Licking is also a sensory tool, so if your dog is licking random objects or areas of your home, they're probably just exploring. It's easier to get a feel for their surroundings if they can taste everything. But licking objects like your rug or furniture can also be indicative of anxiety or boredom (which can often lead to destructive behavior), and a recent study linked excessive licking of surfaces to certain gastrointestinal disorders.

Another reason for licking is your dog wanting to clean themselves and/or spots around them. They've seen it since they were born; animals lick things ritualistically for cleaning and care. If your dog seems to be obsessed with licking themselves or one particular thing, they probably are. (Yes, dogs can have OCD, too.)

As Vetstreet points out, "excessive" dog licking often only seems excessive to the dog's owner, not the pooch itself. But if it's bothersome enough to you, a trainer can often help curb your dog's enthusiasm for giving wet, sloppy kisses. And while strange behavior is not rare for pets, if your dog's licking seems odd or in any way concerning, there's no harm in taking your pet to the vet to check it out—even if it's just for peace of mind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

5 Holiday Foods That Are Dangerous to Pets

iStock/svetikd
iStock/svetikd

One of the best parts of the holiday season is the menu of indulgent food and drinks that comes along with it. But while you enjoy that cup of spiked hot cocoa, you’ve got to be careful your dog or cat doesn’t nab a lick. Here are five holiday treats that are dangerous for your pets, according to Vetstreet.

1. COFFEE

Any coffee lover will agree that there’s nothing quite like an after-dinner cup of joe on a cold night. But pups, kitties, and other pets will have to sit this tradition out. Caffeine can prompt seizures and abnormal heart rhythms in pets, and can sometimes be fatal. Other caffeinated drinks, such as soda or tea, should also be kept away from your four-legged family members.

2. BREAD DOUGH

We know the threat that bread dough poses to the appearance of our thighs, but it’s much more dangerous to our furry little friends. Holiday bakers have to be careful of unbaked bread dough as it can expand in animal stomachs if ingested. In some dogs, the stomach can twist and cut off the blood supply, in which case the pup would need emergency surgery.

3. CHOCOLATE

Cat and dog in Santa hats chowing down on plates of food
iStock/TatyanaGl

A little chocolate never hurt anybody, right? Wrong. The sweet treat can cause seizures and even be fatal to our pets. Darker chocolate, such as the baker’s chocolate we love to put in our holiday cookies, is more toxic to our pets than milk or white chocolate. The toxic ingredients include caffeine and theobromine, a chemical found in the cacao plant.

4. MACADAMIA NUTS

Macadamia nuts, which are a common ingredient in holiday cookies and often put out to munch on as an appetizer, can be toxic to dogs. While poisoning might not always be easy to detect in a pet, clinical warning signs include depression, weakness, vomiting, tremors, joint stiffness, and lack of coordination.

5. ALCOHOL

Think back to when you first started drinking and how much less alcohol it took to get you tipsy, because you likely weighed less than you do now. Well, your pet probably weighs a lot less than you did, even back then, meaning it takes much less alcohol to make them dangerously sick. Keep those wine glasses far out of reach of your pets in order to avoid any issues. Well, maybe not any issue: We can’t promise that this will stop you from getting embarrassingly drunk at a holiday party this year.

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