Manipulations of sensory experiences during development reveal mechanisms underlying vocal learning biases in zebra finches

Dev Neurobiol. 2020 Mar;80(3-4):132-146. doi: 10.1002/dneu.22754. Epub 2020 May 20.


Biological predispositions in learning can bias and constrain the cultural evolution of social and communicative behaviors (e.g., speech and birdsong), and lead to the emergence of behavioral and cultural "universals." For example, surveys of laboratory and wild populations of zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) document consistent patterning of vocal elements ("syllables") with respect to their acoustic properties (e.g., duration, mean frequency). Furthermore, such universal patterns are also produced by birds that are experimentally tutored with songs containing randomly sequenced syllables ("tutored birds"). Despite extensive demonstrations of learning biases, much remains to be uncovered about the nature of biological predispositions that bias song learning and production in songbirds. Here, we examined the degree to which "innate" auditory templates and/or biases in vocal motor production contribute to vocal learning biases and production in zebra finches. Such contributions can be revealed by examining acoustic patterns in the songs of birds raised without sensory exposure to song ("untutored birds") or of birds that are unable to hear from early in development ("early-deafened birds"). We observed that untutored zebra finches and early-deafened zebra finches produce songs with positional variation in some acoustic features (e.g., mean frequency) that resemble universal patterns observed in tutored birds. Similar to tutored birds, early-deafened birds also produced song motifs with alternation in acoustic features across adjacent syllables. That universal acoustic patterns are observed in the songs of both untutored and early-deafened birds highlights the contribution motor production biases to the emergence of universals in culturally transmitted behaviors.

Keywords: behavioral universals; biological predispositions; birdsong; cultural evolution; songbird.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Deafness / physiopathology
  • Finches / physiology*
  • Machine Learning
  • Pattern Recognition, Automated
  • Social Learning / physiology*
  • Sound Spectrography
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*