Seweryn Olkowicz, Martin Kocourek, Radek K. Lučan, Michal Porteš, W. Tecumseh Fitch, Suzana Herculano-Houzel, and Pavel Němec (2016)
Birds have primate-like numbers of neurons in the forebrain.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (advance online publication)
Birds are remarkably intelligent, although their brains are small. Corvids and some parrots are capable of cognitive feats comparable to those of great apes. How do birds achieve impressive cognitive prowess with walnut-sized brains? We investigated the cellular composition of the brains of 28 avian species, uncovering a straightforward solution to the puzzle: brains of songbirds and parrots contain very large numbers of neurons, at neuronal densities considerably exceeding those found in mammals. Because these “extra” neurons are predominantly located in the forebrain, large parrots and corvids have the same or greater forebrain neuron counts as monkeys with much larger brains. Avian brains thus have the potential to provide much higher “cognitive power” per unit mass than do mammalian brains.
Some birds achieve primate-like levels of cognition, even though their brains tend to be much smaller in absolute size. This poses a fundamental problem in comparative and computational neuroscience, because small brains are expected to have a lower information-processing capacity. Using the isotropic fractionator to determine numbers of neurons in specific brain regions, here we show that the brains of parrots and songbirds contain on average twice as many neurons as primate brains of the same mass, indicating that avian brains have higher neuron packing densities than mammalian brains. Additionally, corvids and parrots have much higher proportions of brain neurons located in the pallial telencephalon compared with primates or other mammals and birds. Thus, large-brained parrots and corvids have forebrain neuron counts equal to or greater than primates with much larger brains. We suggest that the large numbers of neurons concentrated in high densities in the telencephalon substantially contribute to the neural basis of avian intelligence.