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June 30, 2008

More familiar than we thought

The nearly 10,000 living species of birds are amazingly diverse, and yet we often think of them as being fundamentally different from the more familiar 4000-odd mammalian species. For instance, bird brains are organized very differently from mammals -- birds lack the neocortex that we humans exhibit so prominently, among other things. The tacit presumption derived from this structural difference has long been that birds should not exhibit some of the neurological behaviors that mammals exhibit. And yet, evidence continues to emerge demonstrating that birds are at least functionally very much like mammals, exhibiting tools use, cultural knowledge , long-term planning behavior, and creativity among other things.

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) adds another trait: sleeping [1,2], at least among song birds. By hooking up some zebra finches to the machinery usually used to measure the brain activity of sleeping mammals, Philip Low and his colleagues discovered that song-bird brains exhibit the same kind of sleeping-brain activity (slow waves, REM, etc.) normally seen in mammals. The authors avoid the simplistic explanation that the cause of this similarity is due to a shared ancestry, i.e., mammalian-style sleep evolved in the common ancestor of birds and mammals, which would be about 340 million years ago (with the origin of the Amniote class of animals). This hypothesis would imply (1) that all birds should sleep this way (but the current evidence suggests that it's only song-birds that do so), and (2) that other amniotes like lizards would have mammalian-like sleep patterns (which they apparently do not).

So, the similarity must therefore be an example of convergent evolution, i.e., birds and mammals evolved this kind of sleep behavior independently. The authors suggest that this convergence is because there are functionally equivalent regions of mammal and bird brains (a familiar idea for long-time readers of this blog) [3] and that these necessitate the same kind of sleep behavior. That is, song birds and mammals sleep the same way for the same reason. But, without understanding what mammalian-like sleep behavior is actually for, this could be mere speculation, even though it seems like it's on the right track. Given the other similarities of complex behavior seen in birds and mammals, it's possible that this kind of sleep behavior is fundamental to complex learning behaviors, although there could be other explanations too (e.g., see [3] below). At the very least, this similarity of behavior in evolutionarily very distant species gives us a new handle into understanding why we, and other species, sleep the way we do.

Update 30 June 2008: The New York Times also has an article in its science section about this phenomenon.


[1] "Mammalian-like features of sleep structure in zebra finches." P. S. Low, S. S. Shank, T. J. Sejnowski and D. Margoliash. PNAS 105, 9081-9086 (2008).

A suite of complex electroencephalographic patterns of sleep occurs in mammals. In sleeping zebra finches, we observed slow wave sleep (SWS), rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, an intermediate sleep (IS) stage commonly occurring in, but not limited to, transitions between other stages, and high amplitude transients reminiscent of K-complexes. SWS density decreased whereas REM density increased throughout the night, with late-night characterized by substantially more REM than SWS, and relatively long bouts of REM. Birds share many features of sleep in common with mammals, but this collective suite of characteristics had not been known in any one species outside of mammals. We hypothesize that shared, ancestral characteristics of sleep in amniotes evolved under selective pressures common to songbirds and mammals, resulting in convergent characteristics of sleep.

[2] New Scientist has a popular science piece about the PNAS article.

[3] Mammals and birds have another important convergent similarity: they are both warm-blooded, but their common ancestor was cold-blooded. Thus, warm-bloodedness had to evolve independently for birds and for mammals, a phenomenon known as polyphyly. One interesting hypothesis is that warm-bloodedness and mammalian-like sleep patterns are linked somehow; if so, then presumably sleeping has something fundamental to do with metabolism, rather than learning as is more popularly thought. Of course, the fact that the similarity in sleeping seems to be constrained to song-birds rather than all birds poses some problems for the metabolism idea.

posted June 30, 2008 08:52 AM in Obsession with birds | permalink


Wow super cool. I always thought my parrot looked like it was having dreams when it was sleeping. Additionally, I would be interested in the relationship between the complexity of songs some birds inhibit compared the language of other mammals.

Posted by: Lois Griffin at July 1, 2008 09:29 AM

That's an interesting idea. The tricky, I think, lays in figuring out how to quantify the "complexity" of animal signaling / language systems in a way that allows us to compare that complexity across different modes of signaling, e.g., the chirps of birds versus the growls and calls of mammals. I know some people have tried to analyze the complexity of whale song, but I think there are some problems with how the results are usually interpreted.

Posted by: Aaron at July 1, 2008 11:54 AM