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Biology professor collaborates with NMSU alumni in ongoing parrot research

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New Mexico State University alumna Anna Young and biology professor Timothy Wright were contributing authors on a recent article that correlated relative brain size of parrots to their life expectancy. The paper, led by researcher Simeon Smeele at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, was published in “Proceedings of the Royal Society B.” It is an extension of prior research published jointly by Wright and his two previous NMSU graduate students, Young and Elizabeth Hobson.

“We were interested in trying to document lifespan in parrots,” Wright said of the previous paper. “One resource that hadn't been tapped was zoo database records. We worked with a database company called Species360 to collate the lifespan data of over 83,000 different individuals and 260 species of parrot. So about two-thirds of all species.”

Usually there is a clear link between animal size and their lifespan, with smaller ones living shorter lives. However, parrots can live much longer than other animals of similar size, with some species living an average of 30 years. This is comparable to the lifespan of primates. “The longest lifespan we found was a cockatoo that had lived 92 years,” said Wright. “This is a bird that weighs about a hundredth of some people's weights but is living as long as them.”

In addition to their long lifespan, parrots also are known for their advanced cognitive abilities (think: their ability to mock human speech). In this new study, Smeele, Young, Wright, and colleagues wanted to understand how their brain size, which can be a rudimentary measure of intelligence, correlated with their longevity.

Mapping the data from the previous paper onto a parrot family tree, and using data on brain size from collaborator Andrew Iwaniuk, Smeele and colleagues correlated a larger relative brain size with a longer life expectancy.

“There are two reasons why that might have happened,” Wright explained. “One is that brain size contributes to longer lifespan. If you're smart, you can figure out how to stay alive. Or it could be a byproduct because brains take a long time to develop. It was found, convincingly, that it is a positive effect of brain size. Birds with bigger brains who are presumably smarter, can live longer.”

However, it is still unclear why bigger brains allow parrots to live longer. “Maybe they're able to find resources better,” said Wright. “Or maybe they're better able to navigate social relationships or avoid predators and bad situations better.”

Wright explains that “the next step would be to look at specific parts of the brain to ask if any of them particularly drive lifespan. We can also try to understand what physiological adaptations parrots have for living longer. How is it that their (small) bodies can survive that long?” These unanswered questions open opportunities for further research within Wright’s lab in collaboration with others. Wright said that answers to these questions could have potential biomedical implications for humans.

“It's really nice to see our early work being improved upon and being able to contribute to it,” said Wright. The alumni who were involved in this project have used their NMSU education for ongoing collaborative research projects and professional successes.

Young works on the executive leadership team at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in California, where she oversees zoo education staff, programming, and research. She serves on several Association of Zoos and Aquariums committees and is actively engaged in the Saving Animals From Extinction program. Prior to that, she was an associate professor of biology at Otterbein University in Ohio and was the director of the Zoo and Conservation Science Program. Anna's research is focused on learning in both parrots and people.

Hobson graduated from NMSU in 2013 and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Cincinnati. She is on the graduate committee of Smeele, the first author of the paper. Her research focuses on how animals learn and use social information. She has active research projects on Monk Parakeets, Vampire Bats, Bobwhite Quail, Little Blue Penguins and African Penguins.