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Behav Neurosci. 2008 Jun;122(3):527-34. doi: 10.1037/0735-7044.122.3.527.

Sex differences in the effects of captivity on hippocampus size in brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater obscurus).

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Department of Biology, University of Mississippi, 219 Shoemaker Hall, University, MS 38677, USA.


In brood parasitic cowbirds, hippocampus (Hp) size is correlated with environmental spatial memory demands. Searching for host nests is the presumed causal factor influencing cowbird Hp size, because Hp volumes vary across species, sexes, and seasons according to nest-searching participation. Brown-headed cowbirds have female-only nest searching and, at least in the eastern subspecies, a larger Hp in females than in males, suggesting that nest searching influences cowbird Hp size. We predicted that female brown-headed cowbirds housed in aviaries lacking host nests would have a smaller Hp than wild-caught females whereas males would be unaffected. We found that the Hp was smaller in captive females, but not males, compared to their wild-caught counterparts. This did not appear to be due to general effects of an impoverished environment on all brain regions. Our results imply that interruption of nest searching in cowbirds prevents seasonal increase in Hp size in females. Future studies should isolate which behavioral differences between wild and captive birds contributed to captivity-induced changes in Hp volume in females while not affecting males.

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