An unusual feature. Scientists find chicks make female southern pied babblers dumber

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An unusual feature. Scientists have found that chicks make female southern pied babblers dumber

Study shows that as females mature, they begin to produce more offspring, but their cognitive abilities decrease.

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Southern Pied Talkers (Turdoides bicolor) are medium-sized black and white songbirds that live in arid and semi-arid regions of the African savannah and the Kalahari desert, Forbes writes.

Representatives of this family prefer to live in groups and breed together. Curiously, each group consists of a dominant pair and a varying number of assistants. It is known that the dominant pair produces about 95% of the total offspring of the group, while only 4% of the subordinate helpers come from out-of-kind groups.

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In a new study, scientists observed a population in the Kalahari Desert – the local population has been under the supervision of researchers since 2003, and therefore is very accustomed to to the presence of people. During the observations, the researchers tested the wild birds with a variety of cognitive tasks, such as pecking down a lid or walking around a barrier on the ground to receive a food reward.

An unusual feature. Scientists have found that chicks make female southern pied babblers dumber

An unusual feature. Scientists have found that chicks make female southern pied babblers dumber

In the course of the study, scientists captured, tested and released several generations of birds to assess their cognitive abilities at different stages of maturation. The study lasted from 2018 to 2021 and involved birds from 14 groups ranging from 2 to 7 individuals. For example:

  • in 2018, 13 individuals from 6 groups were tested;
  • in 2019, 18 individuals from 10 groups were tested;
  • in 2021, 7 individuals from 4 groups were tested.

The scientists then compared the results of the tests with the number of chicks produced by each of the females that took part in the tests. The results were striking—the researchers found that all birds that did well on one cognitive task tended to do well on other tests as well. However, it turned out to be surprising that cognitive functions in both sexes reached a peak quite early and decreased over time in females. The scientists found that female southern pied babblers became more fertile with age, but their cognitive abilities also declined.

According to the lead author of the study, evolutionary biologist from the University of Western Australia Kamaliya Soravia, after analyzing data obtained over 10 years , scientists have concluded that females with lower cognitive abilities produce more chicks per year.

Scientists believe that cognitive abilities require more energy. To conserve energy, females seem to reduce their brain energy expenditure and increase the amount of energy needed to produce and raise chicks. In addition, females spend a significant amount of energy on competition with each other for the right to reproduce.

By the way, chatterbox males do not have so many energy needs, and therefore their cognitive functions do not decrease with age. According to Soravia, more research is needed to understand how this selection works and what mechanism this process has.