Chickadees have superior memory thanks to brain 'barcodes' • Earth.com

Are those little black-capped chickadees flying around your backyard? Not only are they beautiful, they are absolute memory geniuses. To survive the harsh winter, chicks must remember where they hid thousands of food reserves. It is a matter of life or death.

So how do they manage such an amazing mental feat? Columbia University scientists The Zuckerman Institute A fascinating discovery – it turns out that chickadees have a secret memory code.

Barcode of Chickadees Memories

Imagine having to remember where you parked in a huge parking lot. You can even notice the stage, division, and markings like that giant potted plant. Chickadees do something similar, but in a more sophisticated way. Their brains assign a unique pattern of neural activity, like a barcode, to each food stash location.

„We see that each memory is encoded with a unique activity pattern in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores memories,” explained Dmitry Aronov, principal investigator at Columbia's Zuckerman Institute and professor of neuroscience at Columbia's Vakelos College. Physicians and Surgeons.

„We called these patterns 'barcodes' because they are highly specific labels of individual memories — for example, barcodes from two different caches that are next to each other but unrelated.”

Inside the Chickadee's Brain

Every time a hatchling hides, about 7% of the neurons in its hippocampus (the brain's memory center) fire in a specific, transient pattern. When Chikadi needs to retrieve its hidden snack, that exact pattern flashes again. It's like having a built-in scanner for memories in the brain.

„[These patterns] Very surprising… but also very brief — only about a second long on average,” explained doctoral research fellow Selman Setih, Ph.D., co-author of the study.

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More than location

You might think that this memory barcode is intertwined with how chickadees remember places. Researchers thought so, too, and for years focused on so-called „place cells” in the hippocampus. Place cells are neurons that activate when an animal is in a particular location.

Surprisingly, memory barcodes operate independently. Even stashes that are close together in the same environment have different brain codes.

„Many hippocampal studies have focused on place cells, and in 2014 the Nobel Prize was awarded for their discovery,” noted Dmitry Aronov, PhD.

„So the hypothesis in the field is that episodic memory has something to do with changes in place cells. We find that place cells don't actually change when birds are forming new memories. Instead, there are additional patterns of activity beyond what is seen with place cells during food caching.

Importance of Chickadee's Memory

This is the first time scientists have observed memory encoded in this barcode-like format. Can other animals or even humans act in the same way?

„There are many findings in humans that are completely consistent with the barcode mechanism,” Settih noted. If so, further research into the chick brain may unlock the mysteries of how our own memories work.

Imagine if you could reinforce those barcode patterns – remembering your grocery list would be a breeze and finding those car keys would take no time at all!

Searching for the Future of Chickadee's Memory

Researchers ponder several questions such as:

  • Do chickens „scan” their memory barcodes to determine which hidden food to look for next?
  • Is this barcode memory strategy in widespread use in other species, including humans?
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The answers may help explain the concept of „self”. Above all, Dr. As Setih puts it, „If you think about how people define themselves… episodic memories of specific events are central to that.”

Beyond Chikadis Memory

Chickadees are fascinating birds beyond their extraordinary memory skills. These small, lively birds belong to the tit family (Pariidae) and are known for their distinctive calls, which often sound like their name, „chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” Here are some more interesting features of chickadees that highlight their adaptability and attractiveness:

Social behavior and communication

  • Complex calls: Chickadees have a complex communication system, including their famous chick-a-tee call, which varies in intensity and number of „tees” to convey different messages, including predators or food sources.
  • Social networks: They form tight social groups, especially during non-breeding seasons, demonstrating complex social behaviors and hierarchy. These groups help the chicks find food and protect them from predators.

Physical adaptations

  • Size and Appearance: Chickadees are small birds, usually 12 to 15 cm long. They have a distinctive black cap and pouch, white cheeks and fluffy appearance that make them easily recognizable.
  • Cold tolerance: They adapt well to cold climates. Chicks may lower their body temperature at night to conserve energy, a form of torpor. Their dense feathers provide excellent insulation against the cold.

Food and food

  • Diet: Chicks are omnivores. Their diet consists mainly of insects and seeds. They are skilled foragers and often hang upside down to pluck insects from the undersides of branches and leaves.
  • Food hoarding: Chicks exhibit sophisticated foraging behavior beyond remembering the locations of their food hoards. They often store food in thousands of places and manage to retrieve it later, an important winter survival strategy.
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Breeding and nesting

  • Nesting Habits: Chicadies are cavity nesters, meaning they nest in tree hollows. These can be natural or old woodpecker holes. They line their nests with soft materials such as moss and animal fur.
  • Monogamy and reproduction: Most chickadee species are monogamous and exhibit high parental investment, with both parents involved in feeding and caring for the chicks. Their eggs are white with fine spots, and clutches usually contain 5 to 8 eggs.

Security and human interaction

  • Adaptability: Chickadees are well adapted to human-modified landscapes and are common visitors to bird feeders, where they are known to be bold, sometimes taking food directly from human hands.
  • Conservation Status: Most cicada species have stable populations and are not currently considered endangered. Their adaptability to various habitats, including suburban and urban areas, helps maintain their numbers.

Bird watchers and naturalists hold chicks in high esteem for their curiosity, adaptability and complex behavior.

Learning from the little birds

„We see the world through our memories of objects, places, and people,” noted Dmitri Aronov, PhD. „Memories completely define the way we see and interact with the world.

With this bird, we have a way of understanding memory in an incredibly simple way, and by understanding their memory, we can understand something about ourselves.

The study is published in the journal Go.

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