"Birdbrains" Stupid No More

June 1, 2005

 

Crows make tools, pigeons can discriminate cubist from impressionist styles of paintings, and parrots can understand the meanings of words and carry on conversations. Despite all these findings by scientists, the term "birdbrain" has remained an insult. But all that could change if a new system of bird-brain-structure nomenclature created by neurobiologist Erich Jarvis and his colleagues comes into wide use.

Shakespeare ("That which we call a rose by any other name...") notwithstanding, the neurobiologists have long believed that the old system of naming the parts of bird brains denigrated the creatures' intelligence. Based on a century-old concept of birds as primitive, it used such prefixes as palaeo- ("oldest") and archi-("archaic") to describe brain structures, compared with prefixes such as neo- ("new") for mammalian brains. This, despite the fact that the "primitive" birds evolved some 50- to 100-million years after mammals. Such nomenclature reflected the belief that the bird cerebrum is almost entirely composed of "basal ganglia," which is involved in instinctive behavior, in contrast with the neocortex of mammals, which underlies more sophisticated learned behavior.

In the February issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Jarvis and twenty-nine other members of the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium published the rationale for a new naming system that substituted more descriptive prefixes such as arco- ("arched") and palli- ("pallid") for the old terms.

"We knew that we were doing something that may have an impact, not only on the immediate conduct of research in neuroscience, but on neuroscience for the next hundred years," says Jarvis. "And, this nomenclature will help people understand that evolution has created more than one way to generate complex behavior--the mammal way and the bird way. And they're comparable to one another. In fact, some birds have evolved cognitive abilities that are far more complex than in many mammals."