Brain, behavior and evolution
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Birds possess a hippocampus that serves many of the same spatial and mnemonic functions as the mammalian hippocampus but achieves these outcomes with a dramatically different neuroanatomical organization. The properties of spatially responsive neurons in birds and mammals are also different. Much of the contemporary interest in the role of the mammalian hippocampus in spatial representation dates to the discovery of place cells in the rat hippocampus. Since that time, cells that respond to head direction and cells that encode a grid-like representation of space have been described in the rat brain. Research with homing pigeons has discovered hippocampal cells, including location cells, path cells, and pattern cells, that share some but not all properties of spatially responsive neurons in the rodent brain. We have recently used patterns of immediate-early gene expression, visualized by the catFISH method, to investigate how neurons in the hippocampus of brood-parasitic brown-headed cowbirds respond to spatial context. We have found cells that discriminate between different spatial environments and are re-activated when the same spatial environment is re-experienced. Given the differences in habitat and behaviour between birds and rodents, it is not surprising that spatially responsive cells in their hippocampus and other brain regions differ. The enormous diversity of avian habitats and behaviour offers the potential for understanding the general principles of neuronal representation of space.