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Songbird study from CSHL, CCNY provides concrete measure of biology's impact on culture
Date:5/3/2009

Cold Spring Harbor, NY During infancy, each of us emerges from a delightful but largely incoherent babble of syllables and learns to speak normally, in the language of those who care for us. But imagine what would happen if we were somehow raised in utter isolation from other people, not only our parents but also from surrogates such as nurses and nannies. What sort of culture might we evolve if reared in isolation? Would we learn to speak? Would such a language evolve over multiple generations? If so, would it eventually resemble existing ones?

Such an experiment is not practical to conduct in humans, but an analog has been performed among a species of songbirds called zebra finches. The study, which will appear online ahead of print on May 3rd in the journal Nature, provides new insights into how genetic background, learning abilities and environmental variation might influence how birds evolve "song culture" and provides some pointers to how languages may evolve.

The study confirms that zebra finches raised in complete isolation do not sing the same song as they would if raised normally, i.e., among other members of their species. It breaks new ground in showing that progeny of these "odd birds," within several generations, will introduce improvisations that bring their song into conformity with those of "wild-type" zebra finches, i.e., those raised under normal cultural conditions. The study is the product of a collaboration between Professor Partha Mitra and Haibin Wang of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) and Olga Feher, Sigal Saar and Ofer Tchernichovski at City College New York (CCNY).

Bringing culture into the laboratory

Young zebra finches learn to sing by imitating adult male songbirds. But when raised in isolation, the young sing a raspy, arrhythmic song that's different from the song heard in the wild. To find out what happens to this "isolate song" over generations, the scientists desig
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Contact: Hema Bashyam
bashyam@cshl.edu
516-367-6822
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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