Mark Konishi, Pioneer of Studying Behavior’s Neural Basis, Dies
Mark Konishi, Pioneer of Studying Behavior’s Neural Basis, Dies

Mark Konishi, Pioneer of Studying Behavior’s Neural Basis, Dies

The Caltech scientist was revered for his work on the neurobiology of birdsong and owls’ ability to home in on their prey.

Ashley Yeager
Ashley Yeager
Aug 14, 2020

ABOVE: CALTECH

Masakazu “Mark” Konishi, renowned for his research on the neuroscience of owl hunting and birdsong, died July 23. He was 87. Konishi, who conducted his work in two separate labs at Caltech, discovered that barn owls’ hearing is essential for them to home in on prey and that young male songbirds learn their tunes from a “tutor,” typically their father, and then use those tunes to develop their own songs.

“Mark picked his scientific direction based on his curiosity,” Rockefeller University neurobiologist Fernando Nottebohm, a long-time friend of Konishi and a leader in birdsong neurobiology himself, tells The Scientist. “He was not an imitator.”

Konishi was born in Kyoto, Japan, on February 17, 1933. Despite his father only having a few years of schooling and his mother having none, Konishi’s parents, silk weavers, made sure their son had more opportunities than they did. Konishi’s father read to him before he learned to read in school and a neighbor helped him with simple mathematics.

Around the time Konishi turned eight, Japan became embroiled in the Pacific theater of World War II, and while Kyoto was spared from bombing by the US military, food was scarce. Konishi grew edible plants in his backyard and his pet rabbits, which he fattened up on weeds, eventually “became important sources of proteins,” he wrote in his 2008 autobiography for the Society for Neuroscience. After the war ended, his relationship with animals changed, as “insects, fish, birds, rabbits, and dogs,” became his best playmates. Konishi was in awe, he wrote, when a teacher showed him two spiders fighting after the arachnids met on a stick. “I was so happy to see that even our teacher (God for us) played like me.”

Because Konishi’s parents did not have much education, no role model existed for him to continue to go to school after his first few years. Relatives even suggested he forgo additional schooling. Neither Konishi nor his parents took that advice. He followed a friend to a private middle school, and then with the help of a family acquaintance, later transferred to a newly opened public high school. There, hearing his biology teacher’s stories of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Konishi decided he wanted to go to college and so he traveled for the first time to Tokyo to take the entrance exams required for admission. He passed and was admitted.

At Hokkaido University, Konishi became intrigued with neurophysiology and learned of Nikolaas Tinbergen’s studies on animal behavior. This field of study was called ethology, and Konishi became captivated by it. In ethology, “one gets paid and praised for fooling animals with dummies,” Konishi wrote in his autobiography. “I was already doing it as a child.” Such fascination with the way animals act led Konishi to design an experiment on great reed warblers, specifically, probing a single territorial male’s response to tape-playback of his own song. He also studied cuckoos’ use of brood parasitism, because they laid their eggs in the warblers’ nests.

The brains of owls and songbirds

Konishi completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Hokkaido, then earned a Fulbright travel fellowship to cross the Pacific to come to the US. On the ocean voyage, Konishi decided to change his name to Mark, as many of the letters were similar to his Japanese name. He began his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1958, ultimately joining the lab of ethologist Peter Marler. There, Konishi expanded on his experimentation with songbirds, deafening them to see how the inability to hear would affect their songs. His work showed that hearing the song of a tutor, typically the bird’s father, was essential for the youngsters to learn to sing their complex songs. In Marler’s lab, Konishi also met Nottebohm, who joined the lab as an undergraduate. 

“Mark and I became fast friends and that friendship lasted the remainder of our lives,” Nottebohm says. “With Mark and Peter Marler, I was the third Musketeer in that little group that was interested in figuring out how vocal learning happened. It provided us with a critical mass to talk about vocal learning and imagine experiments to study it.”

After completing his PhD in Marler’s lab in 1963, Konishi moved to Germany, undertaking a year-long postdoc at the University of Tubingen. He did a second postdoc at the Max Planck Institute, spent a year at the University of Wisconsin, then moved to Princeton University in 1966 when he began studying owl behavior as he continued his work on songbirds. Konishi was recruited to Caltech in 1975.

At Caltech, Konishi began to investigate the intricacies of how owls hunt. “Mark and his protégés demonstrated that the brains of barn owls possess a three-dimensional map of space constructed from auditory information, thus showing that owls can ‘see’ the world with their ears,” Caltech bioengineer and neuroscientist Michael Dickinson says in a university memorial. “This research helped establish how all brains, including ours, use sensory information to construct elaborate maps of the environment.”

Konishi’s research also revealed more on how young male songbirds learn their tutors’ songs, then practice them, fine-tuning the melodies to attract females. “This research helped establish songbirds as important models for understanding motor learning and language acquisition,” Dickinson says.

Along with his research, Konishi took great interest in mentoring students and advising colleagues. “Mark’s laboratory was characterized by an emphasis on complete freedom, and that spawned independence and creativity,” Caltech cognitive neuroscientist Ralph Adolphs, who was a PhD student of Konishi, says in the memorial. “When I started as a graduate student, I was terrified, since I knew nothing. When I came back as faculty to Caltech in 2004, I felt I knew how to run things, and it was because of my experience with Mark’s paramount emphasis on ideas and pursuit of the big open questions.”

Konishi was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences and his work earned him a long list of awards, notably, the International Prize for Biology (1990), the Gerard Prize from the Society for Neuroscience (2004), the Karl Spencer Lashley Award from the American Philosophical Society (2004), and the Peter and Patricia Gruber Prize in Neuroscience from the Society for Neuroscience (2005).