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Concept: Taeniopygia


Research on mate choice has primarily focused on preferences for quality indicators, assuming that all individuals show consensus about who is the most attractive. However, in some species, mating preferences seem largely individual-specific, suggesting that they might target genetic or behavioral compatibility. Few studies have quantified the fitness consequences of allowing versus preventing such idiosyncratic mate choice. Here, we report on an experiment that controls for variation in overall partner quality and show that zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) pairs that resulted from free mate choice achieved a 37% higher reproductive success than pairs that were forced to mate. Cross-fostering of freshly laid eggs showed that embryo mortality (before hatching) primarily depended on the identity of the genetic parents, whereas offspring mortality during the rearing period depended on foster-parent identity. Therefore, preventing mate choice should lead to an increase in embryo mortality if mate choice targets genetic compatibility (for embryo viability), and to an increase in offspring mortality if mate choice targets behavioral compatibility (for better rearing). We found that pairs from both treatments showed equal rates of embryo mortality, but chosen pairs were better at raising offspring. These results thus support the behavioral, but not the genetic, compatibility hypothesis. Further exploratory analyses reveal several differences in behavior and fitness components between “free-choice” and “forced” pairs.

Concepts: Gene, Evolution, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch, Motivation, Human behavior, Charles Darwin, Estrildid finch


BACKGROUND: Like human infants, songbirds learn their species-specific vocalizations through imitation learning. The birdsong system has emerged as a widely used experimental animal model for understanding the underlying neural mechanisms responsible for vocal production learning. However, how neural impulses are translated into precise motor behavior of the complex vocal organ (syrinx) to create song is poorly understood. First and foremost, we lack a detailed understanding of syringeal morphology. RESULTS: To fill this gap we combined non-invasive (high-field magnetic resonance imaging and micro-computed tomography) and invasive techniques (histology and micro-dissection) to construct the annotated high-resolution three-dimensional (3D) dataset, or morphome, of the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) syrinx. We identified and annotated syringeal cartilage, bone, and musculature in situ in unprecedented detail. e provide interactive 3D models that greatly improve the communication of complex morphological data and of our understanding of syringeal function in general. CONCLUSIONS: Our results show that the syringeal skeleton is optimized for low weight driven by physiological constraints on song production. The present refinement of muscle organization and identity elucidates how apposed muscles actuate different syringeal elements. Our dataset allows for more precise predictions about muscle co-activation and synergies and has important implications for muscle activity and stimulation experiments. We also demonstrate how the syrinx can be stabilized during song to reduce mechanical noise and, as such, enhance repetitive execution of stereotypic motor patterns. In addition, we identify a cartilaginous structure suited to play a crucial role in the uncoupling of sound frequency and amplitude control, which permits a novel explanation to the evolutionary success of songbirds.

Concepts: Heart, Muscle, Magnetic resonance imaging, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch, Sound, Connective tissue, Songbird


Brain activity during sleep is fairly ubiquitous and the best studied possible function is a role in memory consolidation, including motor memory. One suggested mechanism of how neural activity effects these benefits is through reactivation of neurons in patterns resembling those of the preceding experience. The specific patterns of motor activation replayed during sleep are largely unknown for any system. Brain areas devoted to song production in the songbird brain exhibit spontaneous song-like activity during sleep, but single cell neural recordings did not permit detection of the specific song patterns. We have now discovered that this sleep activation can be detected in the muscles of the vocal organ, thus providing a unique window into song-related brain activity at night. We show that male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) frequently exhibit spontaneous song-like activity during the night, but that the fictive song patterns are highly variable and uncoordinated compared to the highly stereotyped day-time song production. This substantial variability is not consistent with the idea that night-time activity replays day-time experiences for consolidation. Although the function of this frequent activation is unknown, it may represent a mechanism for exploring motor space or serve to generate internal error signals that help maintain the high stereotypy of day-time song. In any case, the described activity supports the emerging insight that brain activity during sleep may serve a variety of functions.

Concepts: Nervous system, Neuron, Brain, Sleep, Neuroscience, Memory, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch


Inversion polymorphisms constitute an evolutionary puzzle: they should increase embryo mortality in heterokaryotypic individuals but still they are widespread in some taxa. Some insect species have evolved mechanisms to reduce the cost of embryo mortality but humans have not. In birds, a detailed analysis is missing although intraspecific inversion polymorphisms are regarded as common. In Australian zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata), two polymorphic inversions are known cytogenetically and we set out to detect these two and potentially additional inversions using genomic tools and study their effects on embryo mortality and other fitness-related and morphological traits.

Concepts: Gene, Natural selection, Evolution, Species, Insect, Bird, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch


Vocal signals such as calls play a crucial role for survival and successful reproduction, especially in group-living animals. However, call interactions and call dynamics within groups remain largely unexplored because their relation to relevant contexts or life-history stages could not be studied with individual-level resolution. Using on-bird microphone transmitters, we recorded the vocalisations of individual zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) behaving freely in social groups, while females and males previously unknown to each other passed through different stages of the breeding cycle. As birds formed pairs and shifted their reproductive status, their call repertoire composition changed. The recordings revealed that calls occurred non-randomly in fine-tuned vocal interactions and decreased within groups while pair-specific patterns emerged. Call-type combinations of vocal interactions changed within pairs and were associated with successful egg-laying, highlighting a potential fitness relevance of calling dynamics in communication systems.

Concepts: Human, Male, Reproduction, Female, Bird, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch, Media technology


Human language, as well as birdsong, relies on the ability to arrange vocal elements in new sequences. However, little is known about the ontogenetic origin of this capacity. Here we track the development of vocal combinatorial capacity in three species of vocal learners, combining an experimental approach in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) with an analysis of natural development of vocal transitions in Bengalese finches (Lonchura striata domestica) and pre-lingual human infants. We find a common, stepwise pattern of acquiring vocal transitions across species. In our first study, juvenile zebra finches were trained to perform one song and then the training target was altered, prompting the birds to swap syllable order, or insert a new syllable into a string. All birds solved these permutation tasks in a series of steps, gradually approximating the target sequence by acquiring new pairwise syllable transitions, sometimes too slowly to accomplish the task fully. Similarly, in the more complex songs of Bengalese finches, branching points and bidirectional transitions in song syntax were acquired in a stepwise fashion, starting from a more restrictive set of vocal transitions. The babbling of pre-lingual human infants showed a similar pattern: instead of a single developmental shift from reduplicated to variegated babbling (that is, from repetitive to diverse sequences), we observed multiple shifts, where each new syllable type slowly acquired a diversity of pairwise transitions, asynchronously over development. Collectively, these results point to a common generative process that is conserved across species, suggesting that the long-noted gap between perceptual versus motor combinatorial capabilities in human infants may arise partly from the challenges in constructing new pairwise vocal transitions.

Concepts: Species, Developmental biology, Sequence, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch, Developmental psychology, Song, Finch


The environmental conditions animals experience during development can have sustained effects on morphology, physiology, and behavior. Exposure to elevated levels of stress hormones (glucocorticoids, GCs) during development is one such condition that can have long-term effects on animal phenotype. Many of the phenotypic effects of GC exposure during development (developmental stress) appear negative. However, there is increasing evidence that developmental stress can induce adaptive phenotypic changes. This hypothesis can be tested by examining the effect of developmental stress on fitness-related traits. In birds, flight performance is an ideal metric to assess the fitness consequences of developmental stress. As fledglings, mastering takeoff is crucial to avoid bodily damage and escape predation. As adults, takeoff can contribute to mating and foraging success as well as escape and, thus, can affect both reproductive success and survival. We examined the effects of developmental stress on flight performance across life-history stages in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). Specifically, we examined the effects of oral administration of corticosterone (CORT, the dominant avian glucocorticoid) during development on ground-reaction forces and velocity during takeoff. Additionally, we tested for associations between flight performance and reproductive success in adult male zebra finches. Developmental stress had no effect on flight performance at all ages. In contrast, brood size (an unmanipulated variable) had sustained, negative effects on takeoff performance across life-history stages with birds from small broods performing better than birds from large broods. Flight performance at 100 days posthatching predicted future reproductive success in males; the best fliers had significantly higher reproductive success. Our results demonstrate that some environmental factors experienced during development (e.g. clutch size) have stronger, more sustained effects than others (e.g. GC exposure). Additionally, our data provide the first link between flight performance and a direct measure of reproductive success.

Concepts: Male, Developmental biology, Force, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch, Estrildid finch, Finch, Aviculture


Natural selection favours those individuals with effective anti-predator defences. The presence of sentinels is known to be an effective form of defence amongst stable groups of individuals within cooperative and polygynous breeding systems. However, the presence of sentinels in the more prevalent socially monogamous breeding systems remains overlooked as an important benefit of such partnerships. Here, we describe a study in which we examined the presence and effectiveness of sentinels in a wild population of the socially monogamous zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata). We found that when experimentally approached by a human observer during incubation, birds flushed from their nests at significantly greater distances when their reproductive partner was acting as a sentinel than when the partner was absent. The distance at which birds flushed was not influenced by the approach direction of the human observer, the gender of the incubating bird, the presence of conspecifics, the habitat type or the size of the breeding colony. Our results indicate that sentinels are an effective anti-predator defence amongst socially monogamous birds, and may represent a neglected benefit of the formation of stable social partnerships in birds. We suggest that whilst recent work has focused on the sexual conflicts that occur between males and females in socially monogamous pairs, we should not lose sight of the benefits that individuals may gain from their partner.

Concepts: Male, Reproduction, Female, Bird, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch, Monogamy, Estrildid finch


Many fields of science-including behavioral ecology-currently experience a heated debate about the extent to which publication bias against null findings results in a misrepresentative scientific literature. Here, we show a case of an extreme mismatch between strong positive support for an effect in the literature and a failure to detect this effect across multiple attempts at replication. For decades, researchers working with birds have individually marked their study species with colored leg bands. For the zebra finch Taeniopygia guttata, a model organism in behavioral ecology, many studies over the past 35 years have reported effects of bands of certain colors on male or female attractiveness and further on behavior, physiology, life history, and fitness. Only eight of 39 publications presented exclusively null findings. Here, we analyze the results of eight experiments in which we quantified the fitness of a total of 730 color-banded individuals from four captive populations (two domesticated and two recently wild derived). This sample size exceeds the combined sample size of all 23 publications that clearly support the “color-band effect” hypothesis. We found that band color explains no variance in either male or female fitness. We also found no heterogeneity in color-band effects, arguing against both context and population specificity. Analysis of unpublished data from three other laboratories strengthens the generality of our null finding. Finally, a meta-analysis of previously published results is indicative of selective reporting and suggests that the effect size approaches zero when sample size is large. We argue that our field-and science in general-would benefit from more effective means to counter confirmation bias and publication bias.

Concepts: Scientific method, Effectiveness, Academic publishing, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch, Meta-analysis, Statistical power, Selection bias


Birdsong is a complex behavior that exhibits hierarchical organization. While the representation of singing behavior and its hierarchical organization has been studied in some detail in avian cortical premotor circuits, our understanding of the role of the thalamus in adult birdsong is incomplete. Using a combination of behavioral and electrophysiological studies, we seek to expand on earlier work showing that the thalamic nucleus Uvaeformis (Uva) is necessary for the production of stereotyped, adult song in zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata). We confirm that complete bilateral lesions of Uva abolish singing in the ‘directed’ social context, but find that in the ‘undirected’ social context, such lesions result in highly variable vocalizations similar to early babbling song in juvenile birds. Recordings of neural activity in Uva reveal strong syllable-related modulation, maximally active prior to syllable onsets and minimally active prior to syllable offsets. Furthermore, both song and Uva activity exhibit a pronounced coherent modulation at 10Hz-a pattern observed in downstream premotor areas in adult and, even more prominently, in juvenile birds. These findings are broadly consistent with the idea that Uva is critical in the sequential activation of behavioral modules in HVC.

Concepts: Psychology, Cerebral cortex, Management, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch, Thalamus, Estrildid finch, Syllable onset