blue-footed Amazon parrot

A bird brain that evolved a little like ours did

imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Parrots are intelligent birds capable of complex cognition, and it turns out that the genes that play a role in their brain development are similar to those that evolved to give humans large brains.

“It’s a surprise in the sense that these animals are so different from humans, but it’s also satisfying in that you might predict that since they evolved similar traits, they have some similar mechanisms,” says Claudio Mello at the Oregon Health & Science University. Parrots can produce complex vocalisations and they’re highly social, a lot like humans.

To learn more how these birds’ brains develop, Mello and his team compared the genome of the blue-fronted Amazon parrot with that of 30 other birds. They found that regions of the parrot genome that regulate when and how genes for brain development are turned on are the same as those found in humans. These so-called ultra-conserved elements evolved in both species at different times, but with similar results.

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“These define how the brain grows and how many cells are built,” Mello says. “Humans ended up with bigger brains and more brain cells and more cognitive traits – including language – than primates. Parrots have bigger brains than other birds and more communication skills, and they have similar conserved elements that set them apart.”

Mello says that when these regulatory regions of the genome are disrupted in humans, they are known to be associated with cognitive disabilities such as autism, developmental delays and language deficits.

The team also found 344 genes associated with parrot lifespan. Parrots live far longer than would be expected based on their body size and metabolism, some even lasting into their 80s. The genes Mello and his team found that are associated with parrot lifespan support DNA damage repair, slow down cell death due to stress, and limit cell overgrowth and cancers.

“Parrots seem to have taken advantage of a whole range of genes. That may be why they are so long lived,” he says.

Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.10.050

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