Birds that Migrate Farther May be Smarter

First Posted: Feb 25, 2016 07:25 AM EST

Birds that migrate the longest distances may actually be smarter. Scientists have found that birds who are known to have long migrations have more new neurons in the regions of the brain responsible for navigation and spatial orientation.

Scientists have long-accepted the view that neurons, which are the cells that specialize in processing and transmitting information and contribute to brain plasticity, continue to be generated in the brains of animals even when they are adults. After being created in one part of the brain, the neurons then migrate to regions of the brain that need them the most.

In this latest study, the researchers looked at the role played by neurons in two species of birds: turtle doves and reed warblers. Reed warblers migrate as individuals at night, and turtle doves migrate as a group.

In all, the researchers caught 12 turtle doves and six reed warblers that were on a migratory flight from Africa. They estimated the flight distance already taken by each individual bird by measuring the isotopic signatures on the birds' feathers. Then, the researchers compared the migration distances with the amount of new neurons incorporated into the birds' brains.

So what did they find? First, there was a distinct difference between the two species in the areas of the brain that incorporated new neurons. In reed warblers, new neurons were found mainly in the hippocampus, a region associated with navigation. In turtle doves, they were found mainly in the nidopallium caudolateral, which is an area associated with communication skills. The researchers also found that both species showed a trend of increasing new neurons in line with migration distance.

The findings reveal a bit more about these species, and show that the longer the migration, the more "brainy" these birds become.

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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