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Bird Intelligence -- Pectoral Sandpiper

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Have you ever stayed up all night worrying about a member of the opposite sex? Then pity a bird that has to cope with those same emotions for three sleepless weeks.

North of the Arctic circle where the summer sun shines 24 hours a day, male Pectoral Sandpipers are forced to defend their territories for up to a month at a time without napping. If you snooze, you lose -- and as shown in this video from the land of the midnight sun -- a bird can't let their guard down for a single minute without missing a precious opportunity to mate. A German ornithological team wondered how these tiny birds manage to endure the stress of sleepless competition that goes on for days.

Using a specially designed radiotelemetry system, the scientists monitored the brain waves and neck movements of male birds.

  Pectoral Sandpiper

Studies proved that the most sleepless birds indeed fathered more offspring, and the authors conclude that loss of sleep did not impair the birds' neurobehavioral performance. Yet the birds were unable to dispense with sleep altogether -- still showing brief bursts of sleep activity that last only a few seconds.

Other sleep-challanged birds use different coping strategies. Ducks permit only half of the brain to sleep at a time to remain watchful for predators, and a similar strategy is used on the wing by the migrating Swainsons Thrush.

But why is sleep so necessary to brains? Some believe -- like Shakespeare -- that "sleep knits up the ravelled sleeve of care," acting as a restorative that refuels and rebalances the intellect. Yet research with sandpiper suggests that slumber might simply be nature's way of saving energy by "powering down the computer" during times of low activity. If this is true, then perhaps in the future, busy humans will dispense with sleep altogether and -- like the Pectoral Sandpiper -- devote efforts 24 hours a day to twitter, E-Mail and other forms of socializing that can improve our chances of sexual success.


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