Tuesday, October 23, 2007
In Study of Human Patterns, Scientists Look to Bird Brains
Last month, a bird known as a bar-tailed godwit took flight from Alaska and headed south. A day later, it was still flapping its way over the Pacific. An airplane pilot would have a hard time staying awake after 24 hours of flight (the Federal Aviation Administration allows pilots to fly just eight hours in a row). But the godwit kept flying for an additional week. After eight days and 7,200 miles, it landed in New Zealand, setting a record for nonstop flight.
“If they spend so many hours flying,” said Ruth M. Benca of the University of Wisconsin, “where do they find the time to sleep?”
Bird sleep is so mysterious that scientists are considering several answers, all intriguing. The godwit may have managed to stay awake for the entire journey. Or it may have been able to sleep while flying. Or, as Dr. Benca and other scientists suspect, its brain may have been in a bizarre state of semilimbo that they do not understand.
Bird brains produce patterns of electrical activity that look strikingly like human brains during sleep, a remarkable similarity considering that birds and their brains have been on a separate evolutionary course from mammals for 300 million years. But similarities reach just so far.