Memory and the hippocampus in food-storing birds: a comparative approach

Neuropharmacology. Apr-May 1998;37(4-5):441-52. doi: 10.1016/s0028-3908(98)00037-9.


Comparative studies provide a unique source of evidence for the role of the hippocampus in learning and memory. Within birds and mammals, the hippocampal volume of scatter-hoarding species that cache food in many different locations is enlarged, relative to the remainder of the telencephalon, when compared with than that of species which cache food in one larder, or do not cache at all. Do food-storing species show enhanced memory function in association with the volumetric enlargement of the hippocampus? Comparative studies within the parids (titmice and chickadees) and corvids (jays, nutcrackers and magpies), two families of birds which show natural variation in food-storing behavior, suggest that there may be two kinds of memory specialization associated with scatter-hoarding. First, in terms of spatial memory, several scatter-hoarding species have a more accurate and enduring spatial memory, and a preference to rely more heavily upon spatial cues, than that of closely related species which store less food, or none at all. Second, some scatter-hoarding parids and corvids are also more resistant to memory interference. While the most critical component about a cache site may be its spatial location, there is mounting evidence that food-storing birds remember additional information about the contents and status of cache sites. What is the underlying neural mechanism by which the hippocampus learns and remembers cache sites? The current mammalian dogma is that the neural mechanisms of learning and memory are achieved primarily by variations in synaptic number and efficacy. Recent work on the concomitant development of food-storing, memory and the avian hippocampus illustrates that the avian hippocampus may swell or shrivel by as much as 30% in response to presence or absence of food-storing experience. Memory for food caches triggers a dramatic increase in the total number of number of neurons within the avian hippocampus by altering the rate at which these cells are born and die.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Food*
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Memory / physiology*