|Title||Hippocampal volumes and neuron numbers increase along a gradient of environmental harshness: a large-scale comparison|
|Publication Type||Journal Article|
|Year of Publication||2009|
|Authors||Roth, TC, Pravosudov, VV|
|Journal||Proceedings of the Royal Society B|
Environmental conditions may provide specific demands for memory, which in turn may affect specific brain regions responsible for memory function. For food-caching animals, in particular, spatial memory appears to be important because it may have a direct effect on fitness via the accuracy of cache retrieval. Animals living in more harsh environments should rely more on cached food, and thus theoretically should have better memory to support cache retrieval, which may be crucial for survival. Consequently, animals in harsh environments may benefit from more neurons within a larger hippocampus (Hp), a part of the brain involved in spatial memory. Here, we present the first large-scale test of the hypothesis that Hp structure is related to the severity of the environment within a single food-caching species (the black-capped chickadee, Poecile atricapillus) with a large range encompassing a great diversity of climatic conditions. Hp size in birds collected at five locations along a gradient of environmental harshness from Alaska to Kansas ranked perfectly with climatic severity. Birds from more harsh northern climates (defined by lower ambient temperature, shorter day length and more snow cover) had significantly larger Hp volumes and more Hp neurons (both relative to telencephalon volume) than those from more mild southern latitudes. Environmental pressures therefore seem capable of influencing specific brain regions independently, which may result in enhanced memory, and hence survival, in harsh climates.