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Cambridge Neuroscientist explains the wonder of birds to The Times

Professor Nicky Clayton (left enjoying her major hobby dancing) is a Cambridge Neuroscientist working at the Department of Experimental Psychology. She studies the development and evolution of cognition and works mainly with members of the crow family (including jackdaws, rooks and jays), as well as comparing cognition between the crows and apes and young children.

Nicky's research has challenged many of the common-held assumptions that only humans can plan for the future and reminisce about the past, and that only humans can understand other minds as well as other times. This work has led to a radical re-evaluation of animal cognition, and raises important issues about the evolution of cognition.

Nicky described this research area to The Times Newspaper. The full article can be accessed via the link below, but in summary: Nicky explains that birds have evolved rather successfully: there are over 9,000 species of them inhabiting every continent and living in almost every type of environment — on land, in water and in the air. As a comparison - there are only 4,000 species of mammals on earth.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, bearing in mind their successful population on Earth, birds are highly intelligent and creative: rooks have been seen using cigarette ends as an insect repellent to smoke out bugs from under their wings. Mother crows actually do use stones to raise the water level to quench their thirst. And rooks have been recently spotted acting in pairs to obtain collective food - by standing on opposite sides of rubbish bins, pulling up the bin liner in tandem, carefully securing it with their feet until the food is within beak reach, then tossing it over the edge where another rook waits to guard the stash from potential thieves. These small feathered things are clever!

But how is a bird with a walnut-sized brain capable of such feats? How can a bird brain - bereft of the six-layered structure of our neocortex long thought to provide the unique machinery for intelligence, be able to perform such feats of intelligence?

Professor Nicky Clayton brings these questions to our attention and hopes her research goes some way to answering them.

To read the full Times article, published on the 26th February, please click here.

Article by Dr. Hannah Critchlow, Cambridge Neuroscience Coordinator.

Posted on 01/03/2010

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