The phrenologist’s guide to ecological competence

Since Darwin, scientists have been theorizing as to why there is variation in brain size between species and individuals. Does a larger brain, in say humans, indicate advanced cognitive abilities and complex language processing? Or is a smaller brain, such as the Olive-backed thrush’s, adapted to weigh less to accommodate lengthy flights?

In psychology, the field of phrenology has generally been dissolved, and with it, the idea that variations in brain size could indicate differences in intelligence, creativity or personality between humans. In the field of biology, however, scientists are discovering that brain variation across species might actually be linked to ecological competence. In this case, ecological competence describes the efficiency of a species to engage in ecological processes—such as flexible foraging abilities or advanced spatial memory for migration.

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From the Community: Pika population sees a boost, birds not spreading West Nile and five women honored for their role as environmentalists

Pika found to be flourishing in the Sierra Nevada region, bird migration patterns suggest mosquitoes are to blame for spreading West Nile and mice courtship rituals could shed light on autism. Here are news stories and studies on ecological science from the first week in March.

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Can birds affect tree growth?

Growing conditions, such as water and nutrient supply, are the major determinates of tree growth, but insectivorous birds can also play an important role, say scientists in a study published in the January issue of Ecology. Under the right conditions, birds contribute to whole tree growth by preying on herbaceous arthropods, such as leafhoppers, caterpillars and grasshoppers…

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To fly or not to fly?

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