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Desert Diary

Birds/Big Bird Brains


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When it comes to brains, there doesn't seem to be a correlation between human brain size and intelligence; at least, not until we get into clearly abnormally small brains. Yet, we're convinced that, as a species, our huge brains denote exceptional intelligence and the ability to adapt to differing conditions. Is it true in general that species with larger brains are more adaptable than those with smaller?

A group of researchers from Spain and Canada have now attempted to answer the question within the birds. They looked at 645 attempts, involving 195 kinds of birds, to introduce them into places outside of their normal ranges, such as to islands or different continents. In 243 of the attempts, successful colonization resulted. The results? The bigger the brain, the greater the chance of successfully adapting to the new habitat. The large-brained parrots averaged successful adaptation 200% more often than the bird-brained relatives of chickens and pheasants. Perhaps this explains the successful populations of escaped or released parrots in El Paso, but the poor success of locally released Ring-necked Pheasants.

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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.