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Brain Behav Evol. 1997;49(2):110-20.

Relative hippocampal volume in relation to food-storing behavior in four species of woodpeckers.

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  • 1Department of Zoology, Ohio State University, Columbus 43210, USA.


Previous studies have shown that those food-storing birds of the order Passeriformes that remember the locations of their caches have relatively larger hippocampal complexes than do non-storing passerines. Woodpeckers constitute a different avian order (Piciformes), which also includes some food-storing species. We compared hippocampal volume, relative to the volume of the rest of the telencephalon, across four species of woodpeckers with disparate caching behavior. Red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are "scatter hoarders'. During the fall and winter they cache acorns or beechnuts in dispersed sites throughout a large territory. Red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) also store nuts but in central "larders' on their small territories which they fiercely defend. Caching is absent or much reduced in hairy woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) and downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens), both of which forage on a variety of foods within large winter home ranges. The relative volume of the hippocampal complex in the scatter hoarder was larger than in the larder hoarder, suggesting that red-bellied woodpeckers, like passerine scatter hoarders, rely on memory to recover their caches. Surprisingly, the relative hippocampal volumes in the two non-storing Picoides woodpeckers were most similar to the scatter hoarder of the other genus. In passerine birds, hippocampal volume and telencephalon volume are highly correlated in storing species but not in non-storers. We found that the volumes of these two brain areas were highly correlated in both Melanerpes species, uncorrelated in the hairy woodpeckers, and more weakly correlated in the downy woodpeckers. The unexpectedly large hippocampal complexes in the Picoides species suggests they may engage in some behavior, other than food-storing, that selects for this trait. Conversely, our results concerning the relationship between hippocampal and telencephalon volumes may indicate that a weak correlation is associated with a less specialized hippocampus, independent of its relative volume.

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