Hummingbird studies raise questions about birdsong evolution

DURHAM, N.C. -- In a collaborative study, American and Brazilian scientists have discovered that hummingbirds, parrots and songbirds orders of birds that are evolutionarily distant from one another have evolved remarkably similar brain structures in order to learn to sing. The finding, reported in the Aug. 10 issue of Nature, will not only help understand the evolution of song in birds, but also offer insights into language in humans.

According to Duke University Medical Center neurobiologist Erich Jarvis, the paper's lead author, while most of the 23 orders of birds can vocalize, like the rooster that crows, these vocalizations are not learned but are genetically hardwired sounds. Only three orders of birds the songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds have the ability to learn songs from their adult tutors and repeat them in the right context, said Jarvis. This type of vocal learning is very similar to the way that humans learn to speak.

Surprisingly, these singing birds are not closely related to each other, and in fact have close relatives that cannot learn song, he said. Despite their evolutionary distance, the new research indicates that hummingbirds use the same seven structures in the brain that parrots and songbirds use when they are singing their learned vocalizations structures that aren't even present in non- vocal learning orders of birds.

The finding raises the evolutionary question of whether the three orders of birds developed the ability to learn song independently, and each time developed similar brain structures to serve this purpose. Alternately, there may have been a common ancestor with the ability to learn song, and only a few of the descendants retained this ability along with the specialized brain regions.

Jarvis said that all the evidence supports the former explanation (that vocal learning developed independently three times) and points to another example of independent evolution the similar dev

Contact: Monte Basgall
Duke University

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