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Singing and natural selection

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They arrive in the UK in April and, if you live in the south of England, you may have been lucky enough to hear their beautiful singing, although they are difficult to spot. If you have not heard one yet, you may have missed your chance because they generally sing only until early June and leave for warmer climes from July onwards.

The nightingale’s repertoire of 1,160 syllables (single notes or clusters of notes) dwarves that of other common birds such as the blackbird (108 syllables). And some birds, such as the tawny pipit or chipping sparrow, sing only a single syllable.

The nightingale’s ability to sing so beautifully is down to the structure, rather than simply the size, of its brain. A study carried out by researchers from the Universities of Bath and Cornell showed that birds with a larger “higher”, cortex-like, brain areas in relation to “lower” brain areas are able to learn far more notes. The researchers compared the songs and brains of male birds from 49 songbird species where the male sings to attract females.

This research could provide insights into the way that human brain development contributes to linguistic abilities, the researchers proposed. One can draw parallels between the ways in which bird brains have developed to learn complex songs and the way the human brain has evolved to allow language, which is possible because of prolonged development of the higher brain areas, such as the cortex and frontal cortex.

In bird species with great capacity for song learning, higher brain areas probably became built up over lower areas as a result of sexual selection because females mated with males with the more elaborate songs. This selection for increased learning capacity may have prolonged the development of the last parts of the brain to grow in both birds and humans.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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