Relationship between the Sequencing and Timing of Vocal Motor Elements in Birdsong

PLoS One. 2015 Dec 9;10(12):e0143203. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0143203. eCollection 2015.


Accurate coordination of the sequencing and timing of motor gestures is important for the performance of complex and evolutionarily relevant behaviors. However, the degree to which motor sequencing and timing are related remains largely unknown. Birdsong is a communicative behavior that consists of discrete vocal motor elements ('syllables') that are sequenced and timed in a precise manner. To reveal the relationship between syllable sequencing and timing, we analyzed how variation in the probability of syllable transitions at branch points, nodes in song with variable sequencing across renditions, correlated with variation in the duration of silent gaps between syllable transitions ('gap durations') for adult Bengalese finch song. We observed a significant negative relationship between transition probability and gap duration: more prevalent transitions were produced with shorter gap durations. We then assessed the degree to which long-term age-dependent changes and acute context-dependent changes to syllable sequencing and timing followed this inverse relationship. Age- but not context-dependent changes to syllable sequencing and timing were inversely related. On average, gap durations at branch points decreased with age, and the magnitude of this decrease was greater for transitions that increased in prevalence than for transitions that decreased in prevalence. In contrast, there was no systematic relationship between acute context-dependent changes to syllable sequencing and timing. Gap durations at branch points decreased when birds produced female-directed courtship song compared to when they produced undirected song, and the magnitude of this decrease was not related to the direction and magnitude of changes to transition probabilities. These analyses suggest that neural mechanisms that regulate syllable sequencing could similarly control syllable timing but also highlight mechanisms that can independently regulate syllable sequencing and timing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation*
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Finches / physiology*
  • Male
  • Probability
  • Time Factors
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*

Grant support

This study was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (JTS; 402417-2011); The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.