In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Timothy Roth of Franklin and Marshall College explores the link between local climate and brain capacity within wide-ranging species.
Timothy Roth is an assistant professor of psychology at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His research combines the study of neurobiology, animal behavior, and ecology to understand the processes by which natural selection influences the use of space in animals. He holds a Ph.D. from Indiana State University.
Dr. Timothy Roth - Climate and Brain Function
Why do we think of some animal species as “smart” while others are, well, not so bright? My work focuses on understanding the neurological and evolutionary factors that influence animal cognition, especially those living in challenging environments.
Animals that live in harsh environments tend to have advanced cognitive capabilities. For example, colleagues and I have found that black-capped chickadees, small food-caching birds that live throughout much of North America, have very different cognitive skills across their range. Chickadees from harsh climates (such as Alaska) where food is scarce have more accurate spatial memory recall, better problem solving skills, and are faster learners than are birds from mild climates (such as Kansas). Moreover, chickadees that live in harsh climates tend to have enhanced neural attributes to support their advanced cognitive ability, which are in large part inherited from their parents. So, it seems that over generations, evolution has promoted cognition as a way for these birds to find food quickly and efficiently in demanding climates.
But how does the brain respond to rapid changes, within the span of a few days or weeks? We are finding that it’s not just genetics that are important. By experimentally manipulating space use in captive birds, my lab has shown that reducing the amount of information that an animal needs to remember can reduce the size of the brain region involved in memory and can actually reduce the number of connections in the brain. However, once those changes occur, they can be reversed. By experimentally increasing available space, we were able to restore the connectivity in the brain, suggesting that birds may reduce connections when they are not needed, but can increase them when the need returns.
So it may be that “smart” animals are just those that have the brain to be flexible enough to survive in a complex world and then pass those abilities to the next generation.