Sexual dimorphism of the zebra finch syrinx indicates adaptation for high fundamental frequencies in males

PLoS One. 2010 Jun 29;5(6):e11368. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0011368.


Background: In many songbirds the larger vocal repertoire of males is associated with sexual dimorphism of the vocal control centers and muscles of the vocal organ, the syrinx. However, it is largely unknown how these differences are translated into different acoustic behavior.

Methodology/principal findings: Here we show that the sound generating structures of the syrinx, the labia and the associated cartilaginous framework, also display sexual dimorphism. One of the bronchial half rings that position and tense the labia is larger in males, and the size and shape of the labia differ between males and females. The functional consequences of these differences were explored by denervating syringeal muscles. After denervation, both sexes produced equally low fundamental frequencies, but the driving pressure generally increased and was higher in males. Denervation strongly affected the relationship between driving pressure and fundamental frequency.

Conclusions/significance: The syringeal modifications in the male syrinx, in concert with dimorphisms in neural control and muscle mass, are most likely the foundation for the potential to generate an enhanced frequency range. Sexually dimorphic vocal behavior therefore arises from finely tuned modifications at every level of the motor cascade. This sexual dimorphism in frequency control illustrates a significant evolutionary step towards increased vocal complexity in birds.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animal Communication
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Songbirds / physiology*