Variation in environmental conditions associated with differential selection on spatial memory has been hypothesized to result in evolutionary changes in the morphology of the hippocampus, a brain region involved in spatial memory. At the same time, it is well known that the morphology of the hippocampus might also be directly affected by environmental conditions. Understanding the role of environment-based plasticity is therefore critical when investigating potential adaptive evolutionary changes in the hippocampus associated with environmental variation. We previously demonstrated large elevation-related variation in hippocampus morphology in mountain chickadees over an extremely small spatial scale. We hypothesized that this variation is related to differential selection pressures associated with differences in winter climate severity along an elevation gradient, which make different demands on spatial memory used for food cache retrieval. Here, we tested whether such variation is experience based, generated by potential differences in the environment, by comparing the hippocampus morphology of chickadees from different elevations maintained in a uniform captive environment in a laboratory with those sampled directly from the wild. In addition, we compared hippocampal neuron soma size in chickadees sampled directly from the wild with those maintained in laboratory conditions with restricted and unrestricted spatial memory use via manipulation of food-caching experiences to test whether memory use can affect neuron soma size. There were significant elevation-related differences in hippocampus volume and the total number of hippocampal neurons, but not in neuron soma size, in captive birds. Captive environmental conditions were associated with a large reduction in hippocampus volume and neuron soma size, but not in the total number of neurons or in neuron soma size in other telencephalic regions. Restriction of memory use while in laboratory conditions produced no significant effects on hippocampal neuron soma size. Overall our results showed that captivity has a strong effect on hippocampus volume, which could be due, at least partly, to a reduction in neuron soma size specifically in the hippocampus, but it did not override elevation-related differences in hippocampus volume or in the total number of hippocampal neurons. These data are consistent with the idea of the adaptive nature of the elevation-related differences associated with selection on spatial memory, while at the same time demonstrating additional environment-based plasticity in hippocampus volume, but not in neuron numbers. Our results, however, cannot rule out that the differences between elevations might still be driven by some developmental or early posthatching conditions/experiences.
- Neuron soma