Food-caching birds rely on stored food to survive the winter, and spatial memory has been shown to be critical in successful cache recovery. Both spatial memory and the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in spatial memory, exhibit significant geographic variation linked to climate-based environmental harshness and the potential reliance on food caches for survival. Such geographic variation has been suggested to have a heritable basis associated with differential selection. Here, we ask whether population genetic differentiation and potential isolation among multiple populations of food-caching black-capped chickadees is associated with differences in memory and hippocampal morphology by exploring population genetic structure within and among groups of populations that are divergent to different degrees in hippocampal morphology. Using mitochondrial DNA and 583 AFLP loci, we found that population divergence in hippocampal morphology is not significantly associated with neutral genetic divergence or geographic distance, but instead is significantly associated with differences in winter climate. These results are consistent with variation in a history of natural selection on memory and hippocampal morphology that creates and maintains differences in these traits regardless of population genetic structure and likely associated gene flow.
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