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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Bird brains primed for cooperation

Photograph of an adult male plain-tailed wren captured on the slopes of Antisana volcano at the Yanayacu Biological Research Station and Center for Creative Studies. These wrens are monomorphic.
[Image courtesy of Eric Fortune and Melissa Coleman]

Best friends sometimes finish each others' sentences, but the plain-tailed wrens of the Andes take things even further. Male and female wrens sing intimate duets in which they alternate syllables so quickly it sounds like a single bird is singing.

New research shows that the brains of both the male and female wrens actually process the entire duet, not just each bird's own contribution.

These findings are surprising because researchers have generally assumed that the brain activity of each songbird would be largely devoted to that bird's own singing role.

Eric Fortune of John Hopkins University and colleagues recorded the wrens as they sang while hiding in the bamboo forests on Ecuador's Antisana volcano.

Analyzing these recordings, the researchers learned that the female birds seem to establish the timing of the song and that males, but not females, make occasional mistakes during singing.

Next, the researchers recorded the brain activity in the birds' song center while playing back recordings of bird duets as well as solos. The brain neurons responded most vigorously to the duets, suggesting that certain brain circuits - which are shared by humans - are primed for cooperation.

This research appears in the 4 November 2011 issue of the journal Science.