Researchers figure out similarities in brain architecture between birds and apes

March 3, 2016, Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum

Some groups of birds are mentally just as smart as apes. This is the conclusion drawn by Prof Dr Onur Güntürkün from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and Prof Dr Thomas Bugnyar from the University of Vienna in a review article in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. The researchers compiled numerous neuro-anatomic studies which revealed many similarities in the brains of birds and mammals. These similarities may constitute the foundation of complex cognitive behaviour.

At first glance, the brains of birds and mammals show many significant differences. In spite of that, the cognitive skills of some groups of birds match those of apes.

Research results gathered in the recent decades have suggested that birds have sophisticated cognitive skills. According to one theory, they are able to apply those only in specific situations, for example when hoarding food. In a review article in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Prof Dr Onur Güntürkün from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and Prof Dr Thomas Bugnyar at the University of Vienna demonstrate that this is not the case.

Together, both researchers compiled studies which had revealed diverse cognitive skills in birds. "The mental abilities of corvids and parrots are as sophisticated and diverse as those of apes," says Onur Güntürkün, Head of the Department for Biopsychology in Bochum. Among other things, they are capable of thinking logically, of recognising themselves in the mirror and of empathy.

Complex cognition without cortex

In mammals, are controlled by the multi-layered cerebral cortex, also called neocortex. This brain structure does not exist in birds; instead, complex mental tasks are managed by the so-called pallium. Moreover, birds have much smaller brains than apes. "How, then, are birds capable of the same cognitive performance as apes?" asks Güntürkün. "Is it possible that very different brain mechanisms for complex cognitive processes have developed independently in birds and in mammals in the 300 million years of their existence?"

To address this question, he and his colleague analysed numerous neuro-anatomic studies. Their conclusion: On the whole, the brains of both animal groups have indeed very different structures. When examining them in detail, however, similarities have become apparent. Single modules of the brains, for example, are wired in a similar way, and both animal groups have a prefrontal brain structure that controls similar executive functions.

Origin of similarities is unknown

It is not known how these similarities have evolved. Either their last common ancestor passed the neuronal basis to birds and mammals. Or – and the authors consider this more likely – they evolved independently of each other, because both animal groups faced the same challenges. According to the researchers, this would mean that certain wiring patterns in the brain are necessary to boost cognitive performance.

"What is clear is that the multi-layered mammalian cortex is not required for complex cognition," concludes Güntürkün. "The absolute weight is not relevant for mental abilities, either." While ape brains weigh 275 to 500 gram on average, , who are just as skilful despite lacking a cortex, only manage 5 to 20 gram.

Explore further: IQ tests show individual differences in bird brains

More information: Onur Güntürkün et al. Cognition without Cortex, Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.02.001

Related Stories

IQ tests show individual differences in bird brains

September 28, 2015

Dr Rachael Shaw, a postdoctoral research fellow in Victoria's School of Biological Sciences, conducted a study on a group of wild North Island robin based at Zealandia to examine the mental skills of individual birds.

Birds and humans have similar brain wiring

July 17, 2013

You may have more in common with a pigeon than you realise, according to research. It shows that humans and birds have brains that are wired in a similar way.

Our brains are more like birds' than we thought

July 2, 2010

For more than a century, neuroscientists believed that the brains of humans and other mammals differed from the brains of other animals, such as birds (and so were presumably better). This belief was based, in part, upon ...

Recommended for you

Competing species can both survive, study finds

January 21, 2019

When species compete for limited resources, structures in their environment can be the difference between coexistence or one eliminating another. Relationships between species also are important, according to new research ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 03, 2016
Guess we can now call Donald Trump the combover orangutang a bird brain. Wonder how many concentration camps is he gonna have to open up to hold the eleven million folks he wants to deport. Then there is the question! The BEEEEG question! What if those 'reciever of lost citizens' nations do not want their emigrants back?? What then?! We so KNOW who the last shitbird was who tried this.....Hitler the bad paperhanger. We also KNOW what Adolf Hitler did when other nations would not take the folks he asked to leave...mass murder and genocide on a Bibical scale of six millions of innocent Jews, followed by revenge murder of three million mostly innocent Germans in 'displaced person' camps who never even got close to the Nuremburg Trials if anyone thought they needed the allies, mostly Stalin's henchmen.
BTW....Trump acts like he could easily become a modern American Hitler. Look how he ran his hotels and casinos. Went to Atlantic City! I KNOW!!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.