Is hippocampal volume affected by specialization for food hoarding in birds?

  • Brodin A
  • Lundborg K
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The hypothesis that spatial-memory specialization affects the size of the hippocampus has become widely accepted among scientists. The hypothesis comes from studies on birds primarily in two families, the Paridae (tits, titmice and chickadees) and the Corvidae (crows, nutcrackers, jays, etc.). Many species in these families store food and rely on spatial memory to relocate the cached items. The hippocampus is a brain structure that is thought to be important for memory. Several studies report that hoarding species in these families possess larger hippocampi than non-hoarding relatives, and that species classified as large-scale hoarders have larger hippocampi than less specialized hoarders. We have investigated the largest dataset on hippocampus size and food-hoarding behaviour in these families so far but did not find a significant correlation between food-hoarding specialization and hippocampal volume. The occurrence of such an effect in earlier studies may depend on differences in the estimation of hippocampal volumes or difficulties in categorizing the degree of specialization for hoarding or both. To control for discrepancies in measurement methods we made our own estimates of hippocampal volumes in 16 individuals of four species that have been included in previous studies. Our estimates agreed closely with previous ones, suggesting that measurement methods are sufficiently consistent. Instead, the main reasons that previous studies have found an effect where we did not are difficulties in assessing the degree of hoarding specialization and the fact that smaller subsets of species were compared than in our study. Our results show that a correlation between food-hoarding specialization and hippocampal volume cannot be claimed on the basis of present data in these families.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Corvidae
  • Food hoarding
  • Hippocampus
  • Memory
  • Paridae

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  • Anders Brodin

  • Ken Lundborg

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