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Chickadees possess superior memory due to brain 'barcodes'

Those tiny black-capped chickadees flitting around your backyard? They’re not just cute, they’re absolute memory geniuses. To survive harsh winters, chickadees need to remember where they hid thousands of food caches. It’s a matter of life or death.

So, how do they manage such an amazing mental feat? Scientists at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute have made a fascinating discovery – it turns out chickadees possess a secret memory code.

The barcode of chickadees memories

Imagine you need to remember where you parked in a gigantic parking lot. You might note the level, the section, even landmarks like that giant potted plant.

Chickadees do something similar, but in a much more sophisticated way. Their brains assign a unique pattern of neural activity, akin to a barcode, for each food stash location.

“We find that each memory is tagged with a unique pattern of activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores memories,” explained Dmitriy Aronov, PhD, a principal investigator at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute and a professor of Neuroscience at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“We called these patterns ‘barcodes’ because they are extremely specific labels of individual memories – for example, barcodes of two different caches are uncorrelated even if those two caches are right next to each other.”

Inside chickadees brain

Each time a chickadee hides a morsel, about 7% of the neurons in its hippocampus (the brain’s memory center) fire in a specific, transient pattern.

When the chickadee needs to retrieve its hidden snack, that precise pattern lights up again. It’s like the brain has a built-in scanner for memories.

“[These patterns] are very striking … but very brief — only about a second long on average,” explained postdoctoral research fellow Selmaan Chettih, PhD, a co-author on the study.

More than just location

You might think this memory barcode is intertwined with how chickadees remember places. The researchers thought so too, focusing for ages on what are called “place cells” in the hippocampus. Place cells are neurons that activate when an animal is in a specific location.

Surprisingly, the memory barcodes operate independently. Even stashes made close together in the same environment have wildly different brain codes.

“Many hippocampal studies have focused on place cells, with the Nobel Prize awarded for their discovery in 2014,” remarked Dmitriy Aronov, PhD.

“So the assumption in the field was that episodic memory must have something to do with changes in place cells. We find that place cells don’t actually change when birds form new memories. Instead, during food caching, there are additional patterns of activity beyond those seen with place cells.”

Significance of chickadees memory power

This is the first time scientists have observed memory encoded in this barcode-like format. Could other animals, or even humans, work the same way?

“There are many findings in humans that are totally consistent with a barcode mechanism,” observed Chettih. If so, further research into chickadee brains might unlock the mysteries of how our own memories function.

Imagine if you could strengthen those barcode patterns – remembering your grocery list would be a breeze, and finding those car keys would take no time at all!

Future quest on chickadees memory

The researchers ponder upon several questions, such as:

  • Do chickadees “scan” their memory barcodes to decide which hidden food to visit next?
  • Is this barcode memory strategy in widespread use in other species, including humans?

Answers may help explain the very notion of “self.” After all, like Dr. Chettih said, “If you think about how people define themselves…episodic memories of particular events are central to that.”

Beyond chickadees memory

Chickadees are fascinating birds beyond their extraordinary memory capabilities. These small, lively birds belong to the tit family (Paridae) and are known for their distinctive calls, which often sound like their name, “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” Here are some more intriguing aspects of chickadees that highlight their adaptability and charm:

Social behavior and communication

  • Complex calls: Chickadees have a complex system of communication, including their famous chick-a-dee call, which varies in intensity and number of “dees” to convey different messages, including the presence of predators or food sources.
  • Social networks: They form tight-knit social groups, especially in non-breeding seasons, demonstrating complex social behaviors and hierarchy. These groups help chickadees find food and protect against predators.

Physical adaptations

  • Size and appearance: Chickadees are small birds, typically measuring 12 to 15 cm in length. They have a distinctive black cap and bib, white cheeks, and fluffy appearance, making them easily recognizable.
  • Cold tolerance: They are well-adapted to cold weather. Chickadees can lower their body temperature at night to conserve energy, a form of torpor. Their dense plumage also provides excellent insulation against the cold.

Feeding and foraging

  • Diet: Chickadees are omnivorous. Their diet mainly consists of insects and seeds. They are adept at foraging and often hang upside down to pluck insects from the undersides of branches and leaves.
  • Food caching: Beyond just remembering the locations of their food caches, chickadees exhibit sophisticated foraging behavior. They often cache food in thousands of locations and manage to retrieve it later, a crucial survival strategy in winter.

Breeding and nesting

  • Nesting habits: Chickadees are cavity nesters, meaning they nest in hollows of trees. These can be naturally occurring or old woodpecker holes. They line their nests with soft materials like moss and animal fur.
  • Monogamy and reproduction: Most chickadee species are monogamous and exhibit high parental investment, with both parents involved in feeding and caring for the young. Their eggs are white with fine dots, and clutches usually contain between 5 to 8 eggs.

Conservation and interaction with humans

  • Adaptability: Chickadees adapt well to human-modified landscapes and are common visitors to bird feeders, where they are known for their boldness, even taking food directly from human hands in some cases.
  • Conservation status: Most chickadee species have stable populations and are not currently considered endangered. Their adaptability to different habitats, including suburban and urban areas, helps maintain their numbers.

Bird watchers and nature enthusiasts alike cherish chickadees for their curiosity, adaptability, and complex behaviors.

Learning from the little birds

“We see the world through our memories of objects, places and people,” noted Dmitriy Aronov, PhD. “Memories entirely define the way we see and interact with the world.

With this bird, we have a way to understand memory in an incredibly simplified way, and in understanding their memory, we will understand something about ourselves.”

The study is published in the journal Cell.


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