Image of the Day: Species-Specific Songs

Gene activity is linked to songbirds’ tunes.

Emily Makowski
Nov 14, 2019

ABOVE: Zebra finch (left), owl finch (right), and a hybrid offspring (middle)

When songbirds sing species-specific tunes they’ve learned, they show patterns of gene activity that are unique to their own species in clusters of neurons called song nuclei, according to a new study published in PLOS Biology yesterday (November 13).

Researchers led by molecular neuroethologist Kazuhiro Wada at Hokkaido University studied zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata), owl finches (Taeniopygia bichenovii), and a hybrid produced by interbreeding the two closely related species. They looked at gene expression in the song nuclei of all three finch types to identify genes that are differentially active. Approximately 10 percent of the genes in the song nuclei were differentially expressed between the two finch species, and these differences could be responsible for the different songs of the birds.

The researchers also raised baby zebra finches with adult owl finches, and vice versa, to see what songs the young birds would learn. Although the young learned to mimic the adults’ songs, some characteristics of their songs still resembled the one sang by their own species, even though they were never “taught” it. This suggests that song learning is regulated by genetic differences.

“We believe that this isn’t just about bird songs,” says Wada in a press release. “Our study is a promising step to understand how the changes in gene regulation could eventually lead to the evolution of species-specific animal behaviors.”

H. Wang et al., “Transcriptional regulatory divergence underpinning species-specific learned vocalization in songbirds,” PLOS Biol, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3000476, 2019.

Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at

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