Student Theses and Dissertations

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RU Laboratory

Nottebohm Laboratory


In the oscine songbirds, song is learned by a juvenile from a tutor of the same species, in a pattern that is analogous to human language, and likewise has the potential to change over time by cultural evolution. The similarities between human languages have been studied for centuries, but historically the relationships between the songs of birds of different species have been seen as too divergent to be useful. Using a computational analysis of song databases coupled with genetic phylogenies, I have shown that there is indeed a significant correlation between genetic distance and song similarity in the oscines. For a subset of Emberizid species, it was possible to reconstruct a genus-level phylogeny using the song syntax of these birds. For one member of this subset, I traced the cultural evolution of song properties, both over time and across distances. In addition, I examined the role of innate predispositions in song learning by hybridizing two species of Estrildid finches and examining the vocal output of hybrids in comparison with normally raised and cross-fostered birds. This work represents the first large-scale evolutionary analysis of learned song and the first clear demonstration of the relationship between genetic relatedness and song similarity.


A thesis presented to the faculty of The Rockefeller University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

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