Wellesley professor’s research shows similarity between the way humans and songbirds learn to vocalize

July 17, 2012
Photo by Ivar Pel

A recent study co-authored by Sharon Gobes, assistant professor of neuroscience, shows remarkable similarities between the acquisition of human speech and the way juvenile birds learn songs.

Gobes, who studies the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying animal behavior, uses songbirds as a model system to study auditory memory formation and vocal learning. Her recent paper, “Human-like brain hemispheric dominance in birdsong learning,” co-authored with colleagues from the Behavioural Biology and Helmholtz Institute at Utrecht University in The Netherlands, will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS). 

Gobes and her colleagues uncovered an organization in the brains of songbirds similar to the areas of the human brain that control speech and language processing. According to the authors, songbirds learn their vocalizations in infancy by imitating their caregivers, much like human infants.

“The zebra finch is a great model organism to study a broad range of questions, from social communication to auditory memory and learning of complex motor skills,” Gobes said in her faculty profile. Later she joked, “I do not have a twitter account yet, but I tweet with my birds – and they usually tweet back.”

Neuroscience is the study of the structure and function of neurons and how they are assembled to produce behaviors. The discipline ranks as one of Wellesley’s ten most popular majors.

In other ornithological news, this summer Nick Rodenhouse, Frost Professor in Environmental Science, is working with a project team to monitor a population of Black-throated Blue Warblers (Dendroica caerulescens) and Ovenbirds (Seiurus aurocapillus) at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in north central New Hampshire. Rodenhouse is quantifying the breeding activities of pairs at different elevations and measuring habitat quality. Results of the team's research will contribute to basic ecological theory and will have direct management applications for migratory songbirds, some of which are of conservation concern. The study is part of the broader Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Studies.