Distribution of substance P reveals a novel subdivision in the hippocampus of parasitic South American cowbirds.
Nair-Roberts RG., Erichsen JT., Reboreda JC., Kacelnik A.
Parasitic cowbirds monitor potential hosts' nests and return to lay when appropriate, a task that is likely to involve spatial recall. Seasonal and sexual behavioral variations in the cowbirds correlate with anatomical changes in the hippocampal formation. During the breeding season, parasites have larger hippocampal formations than nonparasites. In parasitic species in which females alone perform nest bookkeeping, females have larger hippocampal formations than males. We investigated the distribution of the neuropeptide substance P (SP) in three sympatric cowbirds: two obligate parasites (shiny cowbird and screaming cowbird) and one nonparasite (bay-winged cowbird). Distribution of SP was similar to that in other songbirds, except for a previously undescribed field of dense SP-rich terminals within the hippocampus that we call the hippocampal SP terminal field (SPh). We found robust species differences in the volume of this new area, measured relative to the remainder of the telencephalon. SPh was largest in the generalist parasite (shiny cowbird) and smallest in the nonparasitic species (bay-winged cowbird). In the specialist parasite (screaming cowbird), SPh was smaller than in the generalist parasite but larger than in the nonparasitic species. SPh overlaps with two subdivisions described in the pigeon that have been related to the mammalian dentate gyrus and subiculum. The area containing SPh receives a major input from the lateral mammillary nucleus, which is probably the avian equivalent of the mammalian supramammillary nucleus (SUM), the main source of extrinsic SP input to mammalian hippocampus. SPh may be the termination of a pathway homologous to the SP-rich projection from SUM to the hippocampus in mammals.