Brain size, head size and behaviour of a passerine bird

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A recent increase in comparative studies of the ecological and evolutionary consequences of brain size in birds and primates in particular have suggested that cognitive abilities constitute a central link. Surprisingly, there are hardly any intraspecific studies investigating how individuals differing in brain size behave, how such individuals are distributed and how brain size is related to life history and fitness components. Brain mass of the barn swallow Hirundo rustica was strongly predicted by external head volume, explaining 99.5% of the variance, allowing for repeatable estimates of head volume as a reflection of brain size. Repeatability of head volume within and between years was high, suggesting that measurement errors were small. In a 2 years study of 501 individual adult barn swallows, I showed that head volume differed between sexes and age classes, with yearlings having smaller and more variable heads than older individuals, and females having smaller and more variable heads than males. Large head volume was not a consequence of large body size, which was a poor predictor of head volume. Birds with large heads arrived early from spring migration, independent of sex and age, indicating that migratory performance may have an important cognitive component. Head volume significantly predicted capture date and recapture probability, suggesting that head volume is related to learning ability, although morphological traits such as wing length, aspect ratio and wing area were unimportant predictors. Intensity of defence of offspring increased with head volume in females, but not in males. Barn swallows with large heads aggregated in large colonies, suggesting that individuals with large heads were more common in socially complex environments. These results suggest that brain size is currently under natural and sexual selection, and that micro-evolutionary processes affecting brain size can be studied under field conditions.

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