Possible link between brain size and flight mode in birds: Does soaring ease the energetic limitation of the brain?

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3 Citations (Scopus)


Elucidating determinants of interspecies variation in brain size has been a long-standing challenge in cognitive and evolutionary ecology. As the brain is an energetically expensive organ, energetic tradeoffs among organs are considered to play a key role in brain size evolution. This study examined the tradeoff between the brain and locomotion in birds by testing the relationship between brain size, flight modes with different energetic costs (flapping and soaring), and migratory behavior, using published data on the whole-brain mass of 2242 species. According to comparative analyses considering phylogeny and body mass, soarers, who can gain kinetic energy from wind shear or thermals and consequently save flight costs, have larger brains than flappers among migratory birds. Meanwhile, the brain size difference was not consistent in residents, and the size variation appeared much larger than that in migrants. In addition, the brain size of migratory birds was smaller than that of resident birds among flappers, whereas this property was not significant in soarers. Although further research is needed to draw a definitive conclusion, these findings provide further support for the energetic tradeoff of the brain with flight and migratory movements in birds and advance the idea that a locomotion mode with lower energetic cost could be a driver of encephalization during the evolution of the brain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)649-657
Number of pages9
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2022 Mar


  • avian brain
  • brain evolution
  • energetic tradeoff
  • locomotion mode


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