Campus Life

Iwaniuk inducted as Fellow into Royal Society of Canada

The University of Lethbridge's Dr. Andrew Iwaniuk, a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Comparative Neuroanatomy, has been named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) and was officially inducted into the RSC at the annual general meeting in Quebec City this past weekend.

Dr. Andrew Iwaniuk, centre, with U of L President Dr. Mike Mahon and Interim Vice-President (Research) Dr. Lesley Brown at the Royal Society of Canada annual general meeting.

One of the University's emerging young researchers, Iwaniuk's research program aims to understand how the brain evolves into different sizes and forms in different species.

Following is his nomination citation.

Dr. Andrew Iwaniuk

Since publishing his first scientific paper in 1998, Andrew has strived to be not only a productive Canadian scientist, but also one that expands our basic knowledge of how the brain is organized. He has been enormously successful in research productivity, attracting graduate students and in expanding his research support through tri-council agencies and other sources. Andrew’s research focuses on how the brain evolves and he is widely regarded as an emerging leader in his field, as shown by his appointment to several editorial boards, service as a reviewer to a wide range of journals and granting agencies worldwide and dozens of invited presentations.  Andrew’s papers are not only cited within his specific field and in neuroscience, but also across multiple other disciplines of the life sciences, such as psychology, paleontology, ornithology, anthropology and animal behaviour. Few other researchers at my career stage or within my field have achieved such widespread success and recognition. Three aspects of his research deserve special mention and are discussed below.

One of the more significant papers that arose from Andrew’s PhD thesis focused on parrot brains. Parrots are renowned for their cognitive abilities, which are often on par with primates, but until his study was published, we knew very little about the composition of their brains and how their brains stacked up against other birds and mammals. He collected data for a large number of parrot species and using sophisticated statistical methods showed that parrots have some of the largest brains, relative to body size, of any birds and that their brains are dominated by the cerebral hemispheres. Further, the relative size of the brain and cerebral hemispheres of parrots are very similar to that of primates. In fact, some parrots had larger brains than primates of a similar body size. This was the first demonstration that parrots and primates had brains that were so similar to one another and changed how we view parrot behaviour, including animal welfare implications. The paper attracted a significant amount of attention from the media as well as from researchers interested in neuroscience, cognition and behaviour.

In that same year, Andrew also published a paper that has changed how many researchers view brain evolution. Prior to the publication of this study, many papers had discussed how evolutionary changes in the brain rarely occur independently of one another, yet there were few attempts to use multivariate statistics to develop a comprehensive view of how the brain evolves across a wide range of species. In this study, Andrew used multivariate statistics and a large dataset that he developed to show that groups of birds clustered together in multivariate space in groups he referred to as ‘cerebrotypes’. The concept of cerebrotypes is that each ‘type’ reflects a distinct brain shape determined by the sizes of all of its constituent regions. These cerebrotypes are an important concept with respect to brain evolution because they not reflect developmental traits or phylogenetic relationships.  Instead, birds were grouped according to a suite of behavioural and ecological characteristics. In other words, species that were not closely related to one another shared similar cerebrotypes because of apparent similarities in behaviour and ecology. For example, species that have the same foraging behaviour shared common cerebrotype, even though they were not closely related to one another. This was the first paper to ever demonstrate that a multivariate analysis of the brain’s anatomy could be linked to behaviour and the first to document how the avian brain evolved in a comprehensive fashion.  It is one of his most highly cited papers and was the most frequently downloaded and cited paper in the journal (Brain, Behavior and Evolution) for over one year. Further, it has stimulated further research into multivariate approaches, thereby changing how researchers analyze evolutionary patterns in brain anatomy across species and even within populations.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Andrew has made to date is his impressive comparative brain collection. At over 500 specimens representing more than 160 species, this is the largest comparative brain collection in Canada and the largest collection of bird brains in the world. These range from Central American hummingbirds to albatrosses and penguins and all birds in between. This collection has formed the basis of 30 publications to date, including the two studies discussed above. Collectively, these studies have greatly improved our knowledge of species differences in the nervous system and how this variation reflects ecology and behaviour. There are far too many examples to discuss in detail, but a couple of studies on the visual system warrant specific comment. In the first study, Andrew found that a single brain region that processes visual motion is greatly enlarged in hummingbirds and this enables them to maintain a ‘stationary’ position while feeding. This was the first evidence that hummingbird flight involves a neural adaptation and was not only featured on the journal’s cover, but also on numerous media outlets. In the second study, Andrew was able to examine the brain of a Kakapo, which is a critically endangered nocturnal parrot found only in New Zealand. This unique parrot has a brain that has features that are both parrot-like and owl-like, a finding that has broken traditional notions of how brains are adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle. It also provided novel insight into the sensory abilities of the Kakapo, which will aid significantly in captive breeding efforts.

Through these studies, Andrew has received international recognition as an expert in evolutionary neurobiology. He sits on several editorial boards and has been the only Canadian researcher invited to two prestigious meetings on brain evolution. The most recent of these meetings was organized by the National Science Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and his input is playing a significant part in determining funding priorities related to evolutionary neurobiology in the United States.