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Researchers Find Neurons behind Crows' Intelligence

Nov 30, 2013 05:34 AM EST

Crows are often called 'feathered primates' because they display extraordinary intelligence. Now, researchers have found that crows' brains are wired to make informed decisions.

The study, conducted by researchers at Universitaet Tübingen, found that although brains of birds and primates are different, the neurons controlling decision-making are very similar.

Crows are known to work in groups, make tools and play pranks on each other. Research has shown that these birds often hide food because they feel 'others will steal it from them.'

Crows belong to the corvid family that also include ravens and magpies

For the study, the scientists trained crows to take memory tests on a computer. The birds were shown an image and had to memorize it. Later researchers displayed similar images on the touchscreen and the birds had to select one of the images. Researchers tweaked the test in such a way that sometimes the bird had to select similar image to get the treat or select a different image.

The crows were able to play the game and switch between the tasks. This shows that the birds have a flexible brain and have the ability to make decisions based on given information. Very few species of the animals have such a high level of concentration, according to a news release.

The scientists then looked at a brain region in the birds called nidopallium caudolaterale. This region is associated with cognition in birds. They found that a set of neurons in this region were dedicated to the task that required finding similar images while another set was active when the birds had to switch to different images. The team could predict which rule the crow was following by looking at cell activity.

"Many functions are realized differently in birds because a long evolutionary history separates us from these direct descendants of the dinosaurs," said Lena Veit, one of the study authors. "This means that bird brains can show us an alternative solution out of how intelligent behavior is produced with a different anatomy."

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications,           

Barbara Clucas of Humboldt State University and colleagues even found in a related study that crows can understand facial features; they fly away when an approaching human looks directly at them, but don't move when the human averts his gaze.

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