Mountain Chickadees Show Amazing Memory Skills By Recalling Thousands Of Locations For Hidden Food


Lost your keys? Can’t remember where you parked the car? Imagine having the remarkable memory of a mountain chickadee.

These tiny birds, weighing only about half an ounce and possessing brains just slightly larger than a pea, have an extraordinary ability to stash and recall tens of thousands of food items like seeds. They hide these items in tree bark, under dead leaves, and inside pinecones scattered across the mountains. Despite the vast number of caches, chickadees can remember their precise locations with astonishing accuracy.

As winter sets in, this remarkable memory allows mountain chickadees to locate their food caches, enabling them to survive the harsh, cold conditions and deep snow of their mountain habitats in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

A study published on April 17 in the journal Current Biology by researchers from CU Boulder and the University of Nevada, Reno sheds light on this incredible ability. The researchers identified nearly a hundred genes associated with the birds’ spatial memory, the skill that enables them to recall the locations of objects.

Interestingly, the study also proposes that there might be a trade-off between having an exceptional long-term memory and the ability to quickly forget old memories to make room for new ones. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that many of the identified genes are linked to memory disorders in other animals, suggesting that a balance in memory capabilities is crucial.

“Chickadees are impressive birds,”  Scott Taylor, the director of CU Boulder’s Mountain Research Station and associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said. “Their spatial memory is much more developed than many other birds that don’t have to have this strategy to survive cold winters.”

To evaluate the spatial memory of wild mountain chickadees, Taylor’s collaborators at the University of Nevada, Reno, led by biologist Vladimir Pravosudov, designed an ingenious experiment. They set up multiple feeder arrays, each consisting of eight bird feeders stocked with seeds, in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

Each feeder was equipped with a gate and a radio frequency reader capable of detecting tags that researchers had attached to the chickadees. The gates were programmed to open only for specific birds, requiring the chickadees to remember which feeders would open for them.

Pravosudov and his team then tracked how many times each chickadee attempted to access the wrong feeders before correctly identifying their designated ones. The hypothesis was that birds with superior spatial memory would make fewer errors.

In parallel, the team at CU Boulder collected blood samples and sequenced the entire genome of 162 tagged chickadees, creating the largest dataset ever assembled for studying the genetic basis of cognitive ability in these birds. By correlating the genomic data with the chickadees’ performance on the feeder test, the researchers identified 97 genes linked to spatial learning and memory. Chickadees with specific variants of these genes were more accurate in recalling the correct feeders.

According to Sara Padula, a doctoral student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a co-author of the study, a significant number of these genetic variants are associated with neuron formation in the hippocampus, a brain region critical for learning and memory. This finding underscores the complex interplay between genetics and cognitive function in mountain chickadees, providing new insights into the biological foundations of their remarkable spatial memory.

“We found in previous literature that many of these genetic variants in chickadees are associated with behavioral disorders in other animals. So this finding can help us better understand animal behaviors in general,” Semenov shared.

Mountain chickadees with exceptional spatial memory can live up to nine years, which is remarkably long for a small bird. However, a new study suggests that this impressive long-term memory might come with certain drawbacks.

After conducting the initial feeder test for a few days, Pravosudov’s team introduced a new challenge by assigning the chickadees to different feeders. Surprisingly, the birds that excelled in the first test faced difficulties with the new task. These chickadees struggled to abandon their original memories and adapt to the new feeder locations.

This observation suggests a potential trade-off in cognitive abilities: birds with superior long-term memory may find it harder to forget old information and adapt to new situations. In essence, their strong memory retention, which helps them recall numerous cache locations, might limit their flexibility in forming new memories.

This discovery highlights an intriguing aspect of cognitive evolution in mountain chickadees. While their remarkable memory aids their survival in harsh environments by allowing them to efficiently retrieve stored food, it may also make them less adaptable to changes in their surroundings. This balance between memory retention and adaptability is an important factor in understanding the cognitive ecology of these fascinating birds.

“In a more variable environment, what our collaborators found suggests that chickadees with good long-term memory may have a disadvantage. For example, if there is an unexpected snowstorm, these birds may keep trying to visit caches that have been buried in the snow, rather than forgetting them and looking for other caches,” Padula said.

For the past one million years, mountain chickadees in the Rocky Mountains have evolved independently from their counterparts in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This long period of separate evolution presents a unique opportunity for researchers to explore whether these two geographically isolated groups have developed their spatial memory abilities in similar or different ways.

The research team aims to delve deeper into this question by comparing the spatial memory capabilities of mountain chickadees from these distinct regions. By understanding how environmental factors and evolutionary pressures have shaped their cognitive abilities, the team can gain insights into the adaptability and resilience of these birds.

Additionally, the researchers are interested in examining the spatial memory skills of black-capped chickadees, which share the Rocky Mountain habitat with mountain chickadees. The coexistence of these two species in the same environment provides a fascinating context for studying potential differences in their cognitive strategies.

To gather more data, the team involved will continue their feeder experiments at the Mountain Research Station during the upcoming winters. By tracking the performance of both mountain chickadees and black-capped chickadees in these tests, the researchers hope to uncover nuances in their spatial memory abilities and further understand the genetic and environmental factors that influence cognitive function in these small but remarkable birds.



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