Drumming woodpeckers use the same brain areas as songbirds

Drumming woodpeckers use the same brain areas as songbirds ...

Songbirds have a lot of admiration for their sweet tones, but drummers may begin to steal a bit of the spotlight.

Researchers claim that woodpeckers, which don't sing but drum on trees, have brain regions similar to those of songbirds. Yet it's not clear whether woodpeckers do or not, the findings suggest a shared evolutionary origin for both singing and drumming.

The ability to detect vocalizations by listening to them, much like humans do when they learn to speak, is a rare trait in the animal kingdom. Vocal learners, such as songbirds, hummingbirds, and parrots, have independently developed certain nerve cells called nuclei in their forebrains that control the ability. Animals that don't learn vocally are thought to lack these brain features.

"There are tens of thousands of birds around the world," says Matthew Fuxjager, a biologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. "While we presume that these brain regions exist only in these small groups of animals, nobody's really looked into a lot of these other taxa."

Fuxjager and his colleagues studied several birds that don't learn vocally to see if they actually had these brain nuclei. Using molecular probes, the group examined the birds' brains for activity of a gene called parvalbumin, a known marker of the vocal learning nuclei.

Woodpeckers don't sing, but they do a rapid drumming on trees and house gutters to defend their territory or seek mates. This type of drumming is different from the birds' drills to find mates. Fuxjager was immediately intrigued when they discovered brain nuclei similar to songbirds in woodpeckers.

The researchers subjected downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) to audio recordings of other woodpeckers' drumming. The birds were then captured and euthanized to be examined for their recent brain activity. Sure enough, the same areas identified by earlier lab tests had been activated in the drummers.

The similarity of the analyzed regions suggests a common origin for bird vocalists and drummers, according to Bradley Colquitt, a biological scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz who was not involved in the study.

"Birdsong is basically the brain controlling muscles in a vocal organ called the syrinx," Fuxjager says. These sophisticated movements differ from the quick head-and-neck movements used in drumming.

The team is currently investigating whether or not drumming is learned like birdsong. Future research will also focus on how woodpeckers' brains are wired, how these nuclei control drumming, and how the brain regions' role in drumming evolved across woodpecker species.

Colquitt claims that this new study "uncovers another species that we can add to our comparative efforts" to understand how complex behaviors evolve. It looks like drummers may soon get their chance to shine.

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