Of Horse-Caterpillars and Homologies: Evolution of the Hippocampus and Its Name

Brain Behav Evol. 2017;90(1):7-14. doi: 10.1159/000475981. Epub 2017 Sep 4.


The hippocampus was first named in mammals based on the appearance of its gross morphological features, one end of it being fancied to resemble the head of a horse and the rest of it a silkworm, or caterpillar. A hippocampus, occupying the most medial part of the telencephalic pallium, has subsequently been identified in diverse nonmammalian taxa, but in which the "horse-caterpillar" morphology is lacking. While some strikingly similar functional similarities have been identified, questions of its homology ("sameness") across these taxa and about the very fundamental relationship of structure to function in central nervous system structures remain open. The hippocampal formation of amniotes participates in allocentric (external landmark) spatial navigation, memory, and attention to novel stimuli, and these functions generally are shared across amniotes despite variation in its morphological features. Substantially greater deviation in its morphology occurs in anamniotes, including amphibians and ray-finned fishes (actinopterygians), but its functions of allocentric spatial navigation and/or memory have been found to be preserved by studies in these taxa. Its shared functional roles cannot be used as evidence of structural homology, but given that other criteria indicate homology of the medial pallial derivative across these clades, the similar functions themselves may be regarded as homologous functions if they are based on the same cellular mechanisms and connections. The question arises as to whether the similar functions are performed by as yet undiscovered, shared morphological features or by different features that accomplish the same results via different mechanisms of neural function.

Keywords: Actinopterygian fishes; Allocentric spatial navigation; Amniotes; Goldfish; Hippocampus; Homology; Mammals; Medial pallium; Memory; Tetrapods.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Hippocampus / anatomy & histology*
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Terminology as Topic