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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Brains, tools, innovation and biogeography in crows and ravens

Knud A Jønsson1*, Pierre-Henri Fabre1 and Martin Irestedt2

Author affiliations

1 Center for Macroecology Evolution and Climate at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken, 15, DK-2100, Copenhagen Ø, Denmark

2 Molecular Systematics Laboratory, Swedish Museum of Natural History, P.O. Box 50007, SE-104 05, Stockholm, Sweden

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:72  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-72

Published: 29 May 2012

Abstract

Background

Crows and ravens (Passeriformes: Corvus) are large-brained birds with enhanced cognitive abilities relative to other birds. They are among the few non-hominid organisms on Earth to be considered intelligent and well-known examples exist of several crow species having evolved innovative strategies and even use of tools in their search for food. The 40 Corvus species have also been successful dispersers and are distributed on most continents and in remote archipelagos.

Results

This study presents the first molecular phylogeny including all species and a number of subspecies within the genus Corvus. We date the phylogeny and determine ancestral areas to investigate historical biogeographical patterns of the crows. Additionally, we use data on brain size and a large database on innovative behaviour and tool use to test whether brain size (i) explains innovative behaviour and success in applying tools when foraging and (ii) has some correlative role in the success of colonization of islands. Our results demonstrate that crows originated in the Palaearctic in the Miocene from where they dispersed to North America and the Caribbean, Africa and Australasia. We find that relative brain size alone does not explain tool use, innovative feeding strategies and dispersal success within crows.

Conclusions

Our study supports monophyly of the genus Corvus and further demonstrates the direction and timing of colonization from the area of origin in the Palaearctic to other continents and archipelagos. The Caribbean was probably colonized from North America, although some North American ancestor may have gone extinct, and the Pacific was colonized multiple times from Asia and Australia. We did not find a correlation between relative brain size, tool use, innovative feeding strategies and dispersal success. Hence, we propose that all crows and ravens have relatively large brains compared to other birds and thus the potential to be innovative if conditions and circumstances are right.

Keywords:
Biogeography; Brain; Cognition; Crow; Systematics; Tool use