Harsh environments and severe winters have been hypothesized to favor improvement of the cognitive abilities necessary for successful foraging. Geographic variation in winter climate, then, is likely associated with differences in selection pressures on cognitive ability, which could lead to evolutionary changes in cognition and its neural mechanisms, assuming that variation in these traits is heritable. Here, we focus on two species of food-caching chickadees (genus Poecile), which rely on stored food for survival over winter and require the use of spatial memory to recover their stores. These species also exhibit extensive climate-related population level variation in spatial memory and the hippocampus, including volume, the total number and size of neurons, and adults' rates of neurogenesis. Such variation could be driven by several mechanisms within the context of natural selection, including independent, population-specific selection (local adaptation), environment experience-based plasticity, developmental differences, and/or epigenetic differences. Extensive data on cognition, brain morphology, and behavior in multiple populations of these two species of chickadees along longitudinal, latitudinal, and elevational gradients in winter climate are most consistent with the hypothesis that natural selection drives the evolution of local adaptations associated with spatial memory differences among populations. Conversely, there is little support for the hypotheses that environment-induced plasticity or developmental differences are the main causes of population differences across climatic gradients. Available data on epigenetic modifications of memory ability are also inconsistent with the observed patterns of population variation, with birds living in more stressful and harsher environments having better spatial memory associated with a larger hippocampus and a larger number of hippocampal neurons. Overall, the existing data are most consistent with the hypothesis that highly predictable differences in winter climate drive the evolution and maintenance of differences among populations both in cognition and in the brain via local adaptations, at least in food-caching parids.
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