Birds have been evolving separately from mammals for around 300 million years. So it’s hardly surprising that under a microscope, the brain of a bird looks quite different to that of a mammal. Nevertheless, birds have been shown to be remarkably intelligent. They can use tools, make plans, and solve unfamiliar puzzles. How is it that both kinds of brain are capable of these things?
A new study published in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience presents the first large-scale wiring diagram for the brain of a prototypical bird (a pigeon).
Using mathematical tools from the theory of networks, a team of researchers show that the way the connections are organised in a pigeon’s brain is remarkably similar to the way they are organised in mammals, including cats, monkeys, and humans. In particular, both types of brain can be thought of as comprising a number of modules. And both types of brain contain “hub nodes”, which can be thought of as regions with widespread, global connections (like major airports in a transport network).
Most remarkably, the major hub nodes in the bird brain have analogous functional roles to those in the mammalian brain, and in both animals they include the most important regions for high-level cognition.
Large-scale network organization in the avian forebrain: a connectivity matrix and theoretical analysis, Murray Shanahan, Verner P. Bingman, Toru Shimizu, Martin Wild and Onur Güntürkün, Front. Comput. Neurosci. 7:89. doi: 10.3389/fncom.2013.00089