Science terminology changing

 to reflect new respect for avian brain complexity




Washington Post


** Even pigeons can distinguish between cubistic

      and impressionistic styles of painting.

          ** Some birds intentionally tell lies.

                    ** New Caledonian crows design and make tools.

                              ** Scrub jays recall past events or places.

                                         ** Parrots, hummingbirds and thousands of song-

birds species teach and learn vocal communications.

Their plumage can be beautiful, and many warble or sing. A few even seem kind of clever, in their way. But for all that is impressive about birds, most people would

agree: ‘Brainy’ they are not.

Now science is about to set the record straight. And the truth may be jarring for all those big-brained mammals for whom the very word for avian gray matter has come to mean “dummy”

Tuesday , February 1, 2005, an international group of experts published a call for scientists around the world to switch to a new set of words to describe the various parts of the avian brain — a wholesale revision of terms that is rarely seen in science and the first total make-over of bird brain anatomy in more than a century.

The new system, which draws upon many of the words used to describe the human brain and has broad support among scientists, acknowledges the now overwhelming evidence that avian and mammalian brains are remarkably similar — a fact that explains why many kinds of bird are not just twitchily resourceful but are able to design and manufacture tools, solve mathematical problems and, in many cases, use language in ways that even chimpanzees and other primates cannot.

In particular, it reflects a new recognition that the bulk of a bird’s brain is not, as scientists once thought, mere “basal ganglia” — the part of the brain that simply coordinates instincts. Rather, fully 75 % of a bird’s brain is an intricately wired- mass that processes information in much the same way as the vaunted human cerebral cortex.

Accordingly, under the new system, no longer will a part of that avian cortex-like region be referred to as the “archistriatum,” with its Latin root that implies primitive. As of Tuesday, February 1, 5005, it is the “arcopallium,” which means, in effect, ‘arched structure in a cognitively sophisticated area.” ‘It’s the opposite of sticks and stones — names do matter when it comes to how scientists and other people think about things,” said Duke University neuroscientist Erich Jarvis, a leader of the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium, whose manifesto appears in this month’s issue of the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

The old system, Iarvis said, stunted scientists’ imaginations when it came to appreciating birds’ brain power. The new system revamps about 95 % of the 1,000 or so terms that scientists use to describe avian brain structure, The problem goes back to the turn of the last century, when German naturalist Ludwig Ldinger did the first careful studies of avian neuroanatomy and labeled the myriad parts of the bird brain. He had a good eye for detail, jarvis said. But he was trapped in the political and religious thinking of his day, which presumed that evolution is a process that goes from simplest to more complicated and from dumber to smarter, all culminating in the appearance of man, who was seen as closest to God.

In keeping with that view, Edingers naming system relied heavily on prefixes like “paleo” and archi” to indicate the primordial nature of the bird’s brain. Edinger was unaware that the first birds did not appear on Earth until 50 million to 100 million years after the earliest, supposedly “nec’ mammals. He also got fooled by the fact that the large por1ion of bird brain devoted to higher processing of visual and auditory information — the part equivalent to the human cerebral cortex — has a neural architecture that makes it look, at first, like the simpler regions that deal with instinctive behaviors.

Like many people today, Edinger had little reason to question ,the conclusion that birds had meager intellects, said fony Reinei; a University of Tennessee neuroscientist and a member of the consortium.     Pigeons bob their heads while they walk, which makes them look like morons, and so people assumed birds only have the moron part of the brain,” Reiner said. “Penpie thought they were stuck with just the instinct part.” In recent decades, however, several avenues of evidence have proven otherwise. Studies of brain chemicals, neural connections and genetic controls over embryonic brain development have shown that the vast bulk of a bird’s admittedly small brain is not “primitive” at all but rather constitutes a robust “pallium,” or higher processing center. And behavioral studies in recent years have proven that many birds have more paliium power than your average mammal.

Even seemingly moronic pigeons can categorize objects as “human made’ versus “natural,,” discriminate between cubistic and impressionistic styles of painting, and communicate using visual symbols on computers, according to evidence compiled by the consortium, which spent seven years on the project with input from scientists around the world. Some birds can play games in which they intentionally tell lies. New Caledonian crows design and make tools. Scrub jays can recall events from specific times or places-- a trait once thought unique to humans.

And perhaps most impressive, parrots, hummingbirds and thousands of other species of songbirds are able to teach and learn vocal communication — the basic skill that makes human language possible. That’s a variant of social intelligence e not found in any mammal other than people, bats and‘ cetaceans such as dolphins and whales.

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