Vocal behavior in tropical hummingbirds is a new area of study. Here, we present findings on the vocalizations and associated behaviors of two species: Sombre Hummingbird (Aphantochroa cirrhochloris) and Rufous-breasted Hermit (Glaucis hirsutus). These are the only hummingbirds in which the brain areas activated by singing have been demonstrated. They are also among the basal species of their respective subfamilies, Trochilinae and Phaethornithinae and, thus, represent early stages in the evolution of hummingbird vocal communication. We found that the two species exhibit distinctive vocalizations and behaviors. Sombre Hummingbird calls had more modulation and were often used during agonistic interactions, whereas Rufous-breasted Hermit calls had higher pitch and purer tones and were produced in less aggressive interactions. Sombre Hummingbird song was highly stereotyped in syllable structure and syntax, whereas Rufous-breasted Hermit song was highly variable. Comparative analysis points to consistent similarities in use of vocalizations by the Sombre Hummingbird and other trochilines, and by the Rufous-breasted Hermit and other phaethornithines. We hypothesize that differences in vocal behavior between hummingbird lineages arise as adaptations to their foraging strategies.








Erich David Jarvis

Adjunct Professor in the Deptartment of Neurobiology

Dr. Jarvis' laboratory studies the neurobiology of vocal communication. Emphasis is placed on the molecular pathways involved in the perception and production of learned vocalizations. They use an integrative approach that combines behavioral, anatomical, electrophysiological and molecular biological techniques. The main animal model used is songbirds, one of the few vertebrate groups that evolved the ability to learn vocalizations. The generality of the discoveries is tested in other vocal learning orders, such as parrots and hummingbirds, as well as non-vocal learners, such as pigeons and non-human primates. Some of the questions require performing behavior/molecular biology experiments in freely ranging animals, such as hummingbirds in tropical forest of Brazil. Recent results show that in songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds, perception and production of song are accompanied by anatomically distinct patterns of gene expression. All three groups were found to exhibit vocally-activated gene expression in exactly 7 forebrain nuclei that are very similar to each other. These structures for vocal learning and production are thought to have evolved independently within the past 70 million years, since they are absent from interrelated non-vocal learning orders. One structure, Area X of the basal ganglia's striatum in songbirds, shows large differential gene activation depending on the social context in which the bird sings. These differences may reflect a semantic content of song, perhaps similar to human language.

The overall goal of the research is to advance knowledge of the neural mechanisms for vocal learning and basic mechanisms of brain function. These goals are further achieved by combined collaborative efforts with the laboratories of Drs. Mooney and Nowicki at Duke University, who study respectively behavior and electrophysiological aspects of songbird vocal communication.

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