Alberta Neuroscientists Find Out Why Parrots Are Not so Bird-Brained

If you hear someone call you a bird-brain, then according to a new University of Alberta study, you’re not that dumb!

The study was published on the Nature magazine website this week, and it’s titled “Parrots have evolved a primate-like telencephalic-midbrain-cerebellar circuit.”

Neuroscientists at the University of Alberta found out that the parrot’s brains have the same neural circuitry as primate have. A specific part of the parrots’ brains – medial spiriform nucleus (SpM) – is more developed. Compared to other birds like songbirds, waterfowl and owls, only parrots have a larger neural circuit, says one of the authors of the study, Cristián Gutiérrez-Ibáñez:

“The SpM is very large in parrots. It’s actually two to five times larger in parrots than in other birds, like chickens.”

The larger SpM give the parrots the ability to solve difficult problems and use tools, added Gutiérrez-Ibáñez, who is also a postdoctoral psychology fellow:

“Some parrots can use tools, they’re also good at solving problems, and this area of the brain is involved in this kind of thing.”

Looking at Parrots’ Brains to Find More About Human Intelligence

Researchers at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, used samples from 98 specimens of bird brains. They compared the findings with primate brains. Gutiérrez-Ibáñez explains that this study will show more information on how the primate brain evolved and we’ll also find out more about the basis of human intelligence.

The human and primate brains have a structure with a significant role in intelligence – the pontine nuclei. That structure transfers information to the cortex and cerebellum for it to be processed. Both humans and primates have a large structure, explains Gutiérrez-Ibáñez:

“This is like a huge highway that is travelled, sending information between these two main areas. We wanted to know if birds and intelligent birds also had a large pontine.”

But researchers found out that intelligent birds have small pontine nuclei, but the medial spiriform nucleus replaces it, performing the same functions as the pontine nuclei:

“Independently, parrots have evolved an enlarged area that connects the cortex and the cerebellum, similar to primates. This is another fascinating example of convergence between parrots and primates. It starts with sophisticated behaviours, like tool use and self-awareness, and can also be seen in the brain. The more we look at the brains, the more similarities we see.”

Rex Austin

Rex Austinwas born and raised in Thunder Bay Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Apart from running his own podcast (Ice Fishing And Other “Cool” Things), he spends his time canoeing and backpacking in Northern Ontario.. As a journalist Rex has published stories for Global News (Thunder Bay) we well as Buzz Feed and Joystiq. As a contributor to Great Lakes Ledger, Rex most covers science and health stories. Contact Rexhere