Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Bird's playlist could signal mental strengths and weaknesses

Date:
May 21, 2013
Source:
Duke University
Summary:
Having the biggest playlist doesn't make a male songbird the brainiest of the bunch, a new study shows. In a series of problem-solving tests with the birds, researchers found that the male song sparrows that sang the most songs learned to solve food-finding puzzles more slowly than the birds singing fewer songs. The results are the first to show that a larger song repertoire links to cognitive deficits in other mental processes.

Male song sparrows may reveal mental strengths and weaknesses when they sing.
Credit: Robert Lachlan, Duke

Having the biggest playlist doesn't make a male songbird the brainiest of the bunch, a new study shows.

Related Articles


"For songbirds, singing a lot of songs indicates a bird is smart, but that signal is not necessarily indicative of intelligence for everything," said Duke biologist Steve Nowicki.

In a series of problem-solving tests with the birds, he and his colleagues found that the male song sparrows that sang the most songs learned to solve food-finding puzzles more slowly than the birds singing fewer songs. The results are the first to show that a larger song repertoire links to cognitive deficits in other mental processes.

The researchers think that female song sparrows may use potential mates' songs to gauge both mental strengths and weaknesses.

Since birdsong is a good model for studying speech development, the findings, published May 22 in Biology Letters, could also help neuroscientists better understand the trade-offs taking place as the human brain matures.

Nowicki and collaborators first measured the number of songs 14 male song sparrows sang. They then taught the birds to identify where a mealworm was hidden in one of 12 shallow wells on a wooden rectangle. The scientists put plastic caps over six wells so that the birds had to learn and remember spatially where the worm was on the wooden block.

The birds that learned to solve the food puzzle more quickly sang fewer songs -- an observation opposite of what the scientists expected.

"This study is very exciting," said University of Nevada-Reno biologist Vladimir Pravosudov, who was not involved in the study. "It is the first of its kind to show a negative correlation between song repertoire size and spatial memory in songbirds, and it goes against the grain of what many scientists had thought about the relationship between song and other cognitive abilities in birds."

Earlier studies with starlings had shown that the birds with larger playlists learned to solve spatial tasks more quickly. Other studies had also shown that a bird that sang more songs performed better on other cognitive tasks.

This newly discovered negative relationship between the number of songs a bird sings and speed of solving a spatial task suggests there is a trade-off between song learning and other cognitive abilities, Nowicki said.

He noted one caveat with the experiment -- the fact that song sparrows don't cache their food or migrate long distances. Both require advanced spatial learning and memory, but the ability isn’t as important for sparrows as it is for blue jays and other species.

Still, the negative correlation suggests birds' brains may develop differently depending on how much effort is put toward learning songs or doing other mental tasks. Song learning happens in the HVC, the area of the bird's brain that controls song. Spatial learning happens in the hippocampus. During development, more resources may go to one area or the other, giving an individual bird a strength in one cognitive ability and a weakness in the other, Nowicki said.

The study supports the idea of trade-offs in the development of the birds' brains. But, "this behavioral data is only tip of iceberg," Pravosudov said. Scientists will need to look at the structures, circuits and chemicals in the birds' brains to better understand mechanistically what the new results mean for brain development.

Nowicki agrees and said his team may perform those experiments next. If the work pans out, he added, scientists could one day use songbirds and birdsong to better understand how trade-offs in brain development influence behavior and cognition in humans too.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Duke University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Sewall, K., Soha, J., Peters, S., Nowicki S. Potential trade-off between vocal ornamentation and spatial ability in a songbird. Biology Letters, 2013 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0344

Cite This Page:

Duke University. "Bird's playlist could signal mental strengths and weaknesses." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 May 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130521194141.htm>.
Duke University. (2013, May 21). Bird's playlist could signal mental strengths and weaknesses. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 26, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130521194141.htm
Duke University. "Bird's playlist could signal mental strengths and weaknesses." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130521194141.htm (accessed March 26, 2015).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Plants & Animals News

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Jockey Motion Tracking Reveals Racing Prowess

Jockey Motion Tracking Reveals Racing Prowess

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Mar. 26, 2015) — Using motion tracking technology, researchers from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) are trying to establish an optimum horse riding style to train junior jockeys, as well as enhance safety, health and well-being of both racehorses and jockeys. Matthew Stock reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Botswana Talks to End Illegal Wildlife Trade

Botswana Talks to End Illegal Wildlife Trade

AFP (Mar. 25, 2015) — Experts are gathering in Botswana to try to end the illegal wildlife trade that is decimating populations of elephants, rhinos and other threatened species. Duration: 01:05 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Elephants Help Keep 18-Wheeler From Toppling Over

Elephants Help Keep 18-Wheeler From Toppling Over

Newsy (Mar. 25, 2015) — The Natchitoches Parish Sheriff&apos;s Office discovered two elephants keeping a tractor-trailer that had gotten stuck in some mud upright on a highway. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Baby 'pet' Orangutan Rescued from Chicken Cage Takes First Steps

Baby 'pet' Orangutan Rescued from Chicken Cage Takes First Steps

Reuters - Light News Video Online (Mar. 25, 2015) — Buti, a baby orangutan who was left malnourished in a chicken cage before his rescue, takes his first steps after months of painful physical therapy. Mana Rabiee reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins