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Woodpecker brains process tree-drumming sounds as if they’re birdsong

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The brain circuit that allows birds to learn songs activates when woodpeckers hear tree drums, suggesting abilities may have arisen from similar evolutionary processes

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September 20 2022

downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) perched on a tree;  Shutterstock ID 1675613710;  Purchase order: -;  profession: -;  client: -;  else: -

Soft woodpecker perched on a tree

Richard J Smith/Shutterstock

To a woodpecker’s brain, drumming on a tree is a lot like the sounds of birdsong. The results reveal significant similarities in the brain circuits behind hearing and carrying out these two major vocal activities in birds, implying that they may be modifications of a common evolutionary paradigm.

For some birds, the sounds come naturally – a hawk doesn’t need to learn how to scream, for example. On the other hand, songbirds and parrots must listen to and imitate older birds to produce their tones, and special circuits in the brain allow them to do so. Eric Jarvis of the Rockefeller University in New York wanted to know if the brains of birds that don’t learn their calls – flamingos, hawks and others – look different from those that do. Previous research has shown that the activity of a gene called parvalbumin is enhanced in special regions in the forebrain of birds that learn songs compared to those who are not. Jarvis wanted to emphasize that this is indeed the case in a diverse group of the uneducated.

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He and his colleagues analyzed the brains of seven of these bird species and were surprised to find that one of them had these parvalbumin-rich parts of the brain: the fine woodpecker (dryups pubescens).

Woodpeckers don’t just use their beaks to dig for larvae inside tree trunks. They knock on trees to make specific sound patterns that convey territorial information with other woodpeckers. Jarvis and Matthew Foxjager at Brown University in Rhode Island then led a team that aimed to find out whether woodpeckers’ curious brain regions were associated with drumming or simple bird sounds.

The researchers played the sounds of drums over loudspeakers near the nesting cavities of 15 wild softwood woodpeckers, then examined their front arms.

In birds that heard drums and in response to drums, researchers found key genetic markers of recently increased activity in a region of the forebrain involved in learning and singing in song-learning birds. They did not find this in individuals who released “neighing” in response, a common reaction among woodpeckers who hear other people’s drums.

“The brain’s complex vocal communication circuits – whether sounds are made with the vocal organ or the beak – may have a limited way of evolving,” Jarvis says.

The researchers believe that bird sounds and drums may have originated from “evolutionary patching” in an ancient chain of connections in the birds’ forebrain for subtle movements in display behaviour.

The results also suggest that drumming behavior may be at least partially learned, Jarvis says.

It would be interesting to see a broader sample of brains across the bird life tree, says Nicole Crenza, of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Other performances, she adds, can be studied for their connections to areas of kinesthetic learning, such as the elaborate courtship dances of birds of paradise and mankin.

Journal reference: Biology PlusDOI: 10.1371 / journal.pbio.3001751

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