Louis Lefebvre’s seminar

6 02 2015

Nice write up from Maria of a seminar I sadly missed this week (Louis has given Heather some nice data on parrot innovations for her PhD work):

On Wednesday, as part of the Integrative Biology seminar series, McGill’s Dr. Louis Lefebvre spoke on “Feeding innovations: an integrated approach to avian cognition”. Having read a few of his papers, I was really looking forward to it. He gave a broad sweep of his and related research showing how rates of feeding innovation and tool use in wild bird species correlate with larger brain cortices (similar to what has been found for primates). To determine these feeding innovation rates, his lab performs large literature searches in ornithologists’ journals to look for reports of novel feeding behaviours, and then classify them according to different degrees of novelty. It seemed really tedious work, but given that their field research station is in Barbados, I didn’t feel too sorry for those grad students.

He was aware that cortical volumes are a crude measure, and explained how now they are trying to dig deeper in the brain by looking at neural gene expression in specific areas (e.g. hippocampus). I liked his willingness to re-analyse everything as they get better quality data (they have already done this a couple of times), as well as his acknowledgement of the correlational nature of his findings. I wish he would have talked a bit more about the costs associated with “big brains” and the relationship between these, tool use and colonization success (though he did mention briefly Daniel Sol‘s research, and the fact that this has also been found for hominids). I also wanted more about within species individual differences and their relationships to reproductive success (which again he mentioned in passing at the species level). Maybe next time.