Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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March 27, 2013

Like humans, birds learn a language of their own

It’s not that birds and people are highly similar in evolutionary terms and thus share this same basic trait of needing to learn how to vocalize like our kin. Indeed it’s been about 300 million years since birds and humans had a common evolutionary ancestor – that’s a long time even by geologic standards! At some point since that long ago split, both the animals that became birds and the primates that later led to us people independently acquired the ability to make complex tones and sounds. Erich Jarvis of Duke University Medical Center is a neurobiologist who has “gone to the birds” in his quest to understand how it is some animals learn to speak the languages in which different species are immersed. He and his colleagues recently announced findings of their work. One of the take away messages of the research is that brains in quite different species have evolved over time in similar ways to produce highly useful features like songs and speech. “I feel more comfortable that we can link structures in songbird brains to analogous structures in human brains due to convergent evolution,” Jarvis said to a reporter from ScienceNews. Jarvis and company have discovered some 80 genes that turn off and on in like manner in the brains of songbirds and people. The genes don’t behave that way in the brains of birds that don’t learn tunes from their parents. The research could have some useful applications. It’s possible that combining it with the data that describes the entire genetic code of people could yield practical information about things like speech disorders. Like the longer and longer days we’re enjoying, that would be something to sing about. --- Dr. E. Kirsten Peters was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

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