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STUDY: These birds prove you don’t need a big brain for a complex social life

These small-brained birds are challenging what we thought we knew about the evolution of 'multilevel societies'. They have achieved a format of social organization once thought to be uniquely human.

RUSSELL MCCLENDON: ‘Birds can form complex, multilevel societies, a new study finds, a feat previously known only in humans and certain other big-brained mammals, including some of our fellow primates as well as elephants, dolphins and giraffes. This challenges the idea that large brains are required for such a complex social life, the researchers say, and may offer clues about how multilevel societies evolve. It’s also further evidence that birds — despite their relatively small brains — are much smarter and more sophisticated than we tend to assume. The subjects of this study are vulturine guineafowl, a heavy-bodied, ground-feeding species native to scrublands and grasslands in northeast Africa…

Researchers report in the journal Current Biology, we know they live in impressive societies, too. Vulturine guineafowl are highly social, living in flocks of a few dozen birds. Of course, there are lots of social birds and other animals around the world, many of which live in much larger groups. A murmuration of starlings, for example, may number several million. A multilevel society is defined less by size, however, than by “different structural orders of grouping,” according to Current Biology Magazine, forcing members to use more mental energy tracking multiple kinds of relationships.

“Humans are the classic multilevel society,” study co-author Damien Farine, an ornithologist at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior… Due to the mental demands of managing relationships in a multilevel society, scientists have long believed this social structure only evolves in animals with the brainpower to deal with its complexity. And until now, multilevel societies have only been known in mammals with relatively big brains, the researchers note. While lots of birds live in large communities, these tend to be either open groups (lacking long-term stability) or highly territorial (not friendly with other groups)…

In the new study, however, researchers reveal vulturine guineafowl to be a “striking exception,” according to a statement from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior. The birds organize themselves into highly cohesive social groups, the study’s authors report, but without the “signature intergroup aggression” common among other birds that live in groups. And they achieve this with a relatively small brain, which is reportedly small even by avian standards… The results showed groups of vulturine guineafowl were associating with each other based on preference, the researchers say, as opposed to random encounters. The study also found that intergroup associations were more likely during specific seasons and around specific locations in the landscape…

And now, according to the authors of the new study, these small-brained birds are challenging what we thought we knew about the evolution of multilevel societies. Not only have vulturine guineafowl achieved a format of social organization once thought to be uniquely human, but their long-overlooked society suggests this kind of phenomenon may be more common in nature than we realized. “This discovery raises a lot of questions about the mechanisms underlying complex societies, and has opened up exciting possibilities of exploring what is it about this bird that has made them evolve a social system that is in many ways more comparable to a primate than to other birds”.’  SOURCE…

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