A Wild and Brainy Night at the Museum

Last Thursday, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City hosted “Neuroscience Night: Wild, Wild Brains” during Brain Awareness Week in the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. The night was filled with interactive games and flash lectures (i.e., a series of talks no more than 30 minutes long) that showcased how our human brains compare to those of our animal counterparts, both present day and extinct.

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A packed lecture room: in the back of the Hall were lectures from three experts each focused on the study of animal brain evolution and behavior. The talks spanned topics such as bird brains, olfactory evolution in primates, and elephant behavior and cognition.

Amy Balanoff, Ph.D., who was one of the night’s guest speakers, presented her own research on the evolutionary history of the avian (or, bird) brain. She and her colleagues use endocasts to study the brains of non-avian dinosaurs and Archaeopteryx (the first known transition between dinosaurs and flying birds) and then compare those casts to the brains of modern-day birds. An endocast is a casting of a hollow space—in this case, a fossilized cranial bone, which Balanoff created using CT imaging.

While the birds we see today have much larger brains than their dinosaur ancestors, Balanoff’s findings indicate that the brains of Archaeopteryx did not change in size when they gained powered flight—as previously thought by her team. Instead, she explained, they noticed that a specific area of avian brains, called the “wulst,” started to evolve during the development of the dexterous grasping “hand” that many dinosaurs, and all birds, possess. The wulst is a structure of the brain linked to sensory and visual perception in all living birds and was also present in non-avian dinosaurs. Interestingly enough, humans have a similar brain pathway to controlling their dexterous and grasping hand capabilities, she said.

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Sarah Jacobson

After Balanoff, Sarah Jacobson, a Ph.D. student in cognitive and comparative psychology, spoke to the audience about elephant cognition in social situations. Her current research is focused on elephants in captivity and their ability to learn and practice self-directed behavior. However, Jacobson and her lab will soon be taking their research into the wild to work with elephants living on protected land in Thailand. This is partly in reaction to the conflict between humans and elephants that began when elephants started leaving their sanctuary to explore nearby crops, she said.

Jacobson explained that while the elephants are in captivity, her team can test their problem-solving skills by giving them various tests involving teamwork and food-oriented prizes. Once they take their research to a natural setting abroad, Jacobson’s goal is to study the individual differences in problem-solving techniques and to gather more information on why some elephants make the decision to wander onto their human neighbor’s land, while others stay within the protected sanctuary.

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Interactive games and activities were sprinkled throughout the Hall. Participants could play “neuron” cornhole (left) or listen to their own motor neurons firing using electrodes conductors (right).

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Towards the back, the Sackler Education Lab was filled with stations for participants to get hands on.

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Outside of the flash lectures, participants explored different animal brains at the “Fold-a-Brain” station, where they could compare different species brain sizes (left) or at the stand to see endocasts of birds versus hominins (right).

Thanks to all of our partners and participants for another successful Brain Awareness Week! This year’s campaign is officially over, but you can still check out more coverage on our blog. Read about other NYC events covering Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, the ethics of artificial intelligence, resilience in overcoming challenges, and everybody’s favorite lab on wheels: the BioBus.

– Celina Sooksatan

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