Public Release: 

How do songbirds sing? In 3D!

University of Southern Denmark

January 8, 2013 - A multinational team of researchers made a significant step forward in trying to understand how birds produce their beautiful songs. "We used cutting-edge 3D imaging techniques to understand the complicated structure of the vocal organ of songbirds, the syrinx", says Dr. Coen Elemans, from the University of Southern Denmark, the senior author on the study. Elemans and his colleagues are publishing their findings January 8, 2013 in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Biology.

Communicating with sounds is central to the life of most animals and they use it to signal their identity, what species they belong to, to attract partners, to avoid predators, and to teach their young. "Songbirds in particular excel at vocal communication", says Elemans. Many song notes are superfast and very reproducible, even while the bird is in constant motion. "Just imagine an orchestra musician playing his instrument while performing a dance. How do birds do this?", he wonders.

There are several intriguing similarities between how juvenile songbirds imitate their parents to learn their songs and how human infants imitate to learn how to speak. Therefore the vocal learning abilities of songbirds have been of great interest. "We know quite a bit about how the songbird brain codes and decodes songs and how young songbirds learn to imitate the songs of their adult fathers. But we know very little about the instrument itself, the vocal organ called syrinx ", explains Elemans.

While mammals make sound with their larynx, birds have evolved a unique structure that is located where the windpipe forks to the lungs. It has two pairs of vocal cords and songbirds can sing with two notes at the same time. To reveal the detailed structure of the syrinx, the team mapped it with high-resolution imaging techniques such as high-field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and micro-computed tomography (μCT). They created 3D interactive PDF models showing the muscles, cartilages, and bones of the syrinx in unparalleled detail. "We show how the syrinx is adapted for superfast trills and how it can be stabilized while the bird moves. Also we emphasize how several muscles may work together to control for example the pitch or volume of the sound produced ", he adds.

Elemans concludes by saying that "the results lay down the foundation for our understanding of how songbirds can undertake such complex vocal acrobatics, so we can unravel the mystery of how songbirds produce some of nature's most inspiring sound compositions."



Dr. Coen Elemans
Assistant Professor
University of Southern Denmark
Contact: office 45-655-04453
Languages: English, Dutch, Danish

[Please note that time in Denmark is six hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Time.]

Henrik Gautier
Science news press officer
University of Southern Denmark
Faculty of Natural Sciences
Contact: office 45-655-02827, cell 45-419-96131

Dr Hilary Glover
Scientific Press Officer
BioMed Central
Tel: 44-20-3192-2370, Cell: 44-778-698-1967,


1. The songbird syrinx morphome: a three-dimensional, high-resolution, interactive morphological map of the zebra finch vocal organ
Daniel N Düring, Alexander Ziegler, Christopher K Thompson, Andreas Ziegler, Cornelius Faber, Johannes Müller, Constance Scharff and Coen P H Elemans
BMC Biology (in press)

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

Article citation and URL available on request on the day of publication.

2. BMC Biology is the flagship biology journal of the BMC series, publishing peer-reviewed research and methodology articles of special importance and broad interest in any area of biology, as well as reviews, opinion pieces, comment and Q&As on topics of special or topical interest. @BMCBiology

3. Images are to be credited to Daniel N Düring, Alexander Ziegler, Christopher K Thompson, Andreas Ziegler, Cornelius Faber, Johannes Müller, Constance Scharff and Coen P H Elemans.

4. BioMed Central is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Science+Business Media, a leading global publisher in the STM sector. @BioMedCentral

The link to the press release on BMC Biology is:

Danish version here:

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