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Proc Biol Sci. 2006 Oct 22;273(1601):2641-9.

The relationship between migratory behaviour, memory and the hippocampus: an intraspecific comparison.

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Department of Biology, M/S 314, University of Nevada Reno, Reno, NV 89557, USA.


It has been hypothesized that memory-demanding ecological conditions might result in enhanced memory and an enlarged hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory processing, either via extensive memory experience or through evolutionary changes. Avian migration appears to represent one of such memory-demanding ecological conditions. We compared two subspecies of the white-crowned sparrow: migratory Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii and non-migratory Z. l. nuttalli. Compared to non-migratory Z. l. nuttalli, migratory Z. l. gambelii showed better memory performance on spatial one-trial associative learning tasks and had more hippocampal neurons. Migratory subspecies also had larger hippocampi relative to the remainder of the telencephalon but not relative to body mass. In adults, the differences between migratory and non-migratory sparrows were especially pronounced in the right hippocampus. Juvenile migratory Z. l. gambelii had relatively larger hippocampal volume compared to juvenile non-migratory Z. l. nuttalli. Adult migratory Z. l. gambelii had more neurons in their right hippocampus compared to juveniles but such differences were not found in non-migratory Z. l. nuttalli. Our results suggest that migratory behaviour might be related to enhanced spatial memory and an enlarged hippocampus with more neurons, and that differences in the hippocampus between migratory and non-migratory sparrows might be experience-dependent. Furthermore, for the first time our results suggest that the right hippocampus, which encodes global spatial information, might be involved in migratory behaviour.

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