Behaviourally driven gene expression reveals song nuclei in hummingbird brain.

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2000-08-10

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Abstract

Hummingbirds have developed a wealth of intriguing features, such as backwards flight, ultraviolet vision, extremely high metabolic rates, nocturnal hibernation, high brain-to-body size ratio and a remarkable species-specific diversity of vocalizations. Like humans, they have also developed the rare trait of vocal learning, this being the ability to acquire vocalizations through imitation rather than instinct. Here we show, using behaviourally driven gene expression in freely ranging tropical animals, that the forebrain of hummingbirds contains seven discrete structures that are active during singing, providing the first anatomical and functional demonstration of vocal nuclei in hummingbirds. These structures are strikingly similar to seven forebrain regions that are involved in vocal learning and production in songbirds and parrots--the only other avian orders known to be vocal learners. This similarity is surprising, as songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds are thought to have evolved vocal learning and associated brain structures independently, and it indicates that strong constraints may influence the evolution of forebrain vocal nuclei.

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10.1038/35020570

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Jarvis, ED, S Ribeiro, ML da Silva, D Ventura, J Vielliard and CV Mello (2000). Behaviourally driven gene expression reveals song nuclei in hummingbird brain. Nature, 406(6796). pp. 628–632. 10.1038/35020570 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/11215.

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Jarvis

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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