In the Bird World, It Takes Big Brains or Big Guts to Survive in Extremes

This tale appeared in the September/October 2020 of Explore journal as “The Ecology of Dumb.” We hope you’ll subscribe to Discover and aid support science journalism at a time when it’s essential the most. 


As you get nearer to Earth’s poles, seasonal swings in temperature and vegetation get more and more drastic. In a lot of spots, snowy winter season wastelands alternate with reasonably lush summers. That can make lifestyle tough for birds, unless of course they can cope with the weather — and their foods sources — changing during the 12 months. Birds that cannot tackle it migrate to warmer climes for the winter season. Those people that rough it out 12 months-spherical are likely to have big brains relative to their entire body dimension, which aid them determine out how to deal with lifestyle in the changing landscape — or so scientists experienced assumed.

But Trevor Fristoe, who grew up in Alaska, realized that compact-brained birds could also prosper in these environments. An avid birder, Fristoe is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Konstanz in Germany. In a recent study, he located how compact-brained birds can fare very well around the poles: Somewhat than relying on big brains, some rather focus their diet plans, eating only plants that are tough to digest but readily available during the winter season. Explore questioned Fristoe about the insights that led to this discovery. —  Geoffrey Giller

Trevor Fristoe - Gretchen Garcia

Trevor Fristoe. (Credit history: Gretchen Garcia)

Q: What manufactured you surprise irrespective of whether these extreme environments may well also favor compact-brained birds?

A: I lived through winters [in Alaska] where by you can go exterior and it’s pretty much article-apocalyptically chilly. You would see these big-brained birds up there ravens had been the most conspicuous animals about. When you had been jogging from your auto, you’d see a raven finding through garbage luggage in the back of a pickup truck or eating French fries, locating methods to endure in this tremendous-extreme natural environment. But you can also locate ptarmigans and spruce grouse, these men that are truly consultant of compact-brained teams. I desired to search at that. Were being these just rare exceptions to the standard sample, or is there something else there likely on? We experienced a code identify for this line of questions: the ecology of dumb.

Q: How did your working experience as a birder aid you build these questions?

A: For me, it’s truly crucial to know the method I’m doing work with. You have to go out there and working experience it in purchase to fully grasp the patterns you are getting from the knowledge or to ask the suitable questions.

Willow ptarmigan in Alaska - Trevor Fristoe

Some birds, like the willow ptarmigan in Alaska, may perhaps have tailored to endure chilly winters by possessing big guts rather of big brains. (Credit history: Trevor Fristoe)

Q: So how do these “dumb” birds endure?

A: Spruce grouse can persist entirely by eating spruce needles and twigs during the winter season. But to digest these styles of meals, you will need a truly substantial gut — and the gut is a different electricity-intensive tissue. So, the strategy was that you cannot have both — it ought to be quite hard to preserve both your quite substantial gut and a quite substantial mind. We located that that was true.

Q: How does this get the job done healthy into your broader exploration?

A: Definitely what unites almost everything is I’m quite fascinated by what determines the distribution of species throughout the planet. Why do you locate this organism in this natural environment but not in that natural environment?

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