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Are Mountain Birds Better Problem Solvers?

Feb 25, 2015 03:13 PM EST
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It has been suggested that animals living in challenging or harsh environments have enhanced mental capabilities, and now new research indicates mountain chickadees in particular, which survive at higher altitudes, may be better problem solvers.

The findings were published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Humans living on harsh, icy mountains have been shown to be mentally sharper, and this goes for birds as well. Mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli), a North American bird in the tit family, can be found at different mountain elevations where varying winter conditions are experienced. And according to researchers at the University of Nevada, those that live at higher, harsher altitudes have bigger brains than birds of this species hailing from lower regions.

Specifically, the have bigger hippocampi - the part of the brain which plays an important role in memory and spatial navigation. This means chickadees have a far superior spatial memory and can better remember where they hid away food. But are they better able to solve problems and not shy when it comes to inspecting new things, like other species living in extreme environments?

To find out, lead researcher Dovid Kozlovsky and his colleagues caught 24 young birds in the Sagehen Experimental Forest in California that had not yet experienced a harsh winter. Some hailed from a site around 1,800 meters (5,905 feet) above sea level, while others lived 600 meters (1,968 feet) higher.

They found that when it comes to problem solving, higher elevated birds have the upper hand. The chickadees were presented with a clear test tube with a waxworm inside, their favorite meal, which was plugged with cotton. Members of the higher elevation group were able to work out how to remove the plug much more quickly than their counterparts from the lower region.

However, when all the birds were confronted with a new type of feeder that they weren't used to, they all proved to be cautious and unwilling to explore new things.

"Enhanced problem-solving ability might be associated with living in harsher environments either via natural selection or by the animal's adaptability to different environments," Kozlovsky said in a statement. "However, differences in problem-solving ability are not necessarily associated with differences in neophobia."

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