Songbirds May Sing Like Human Opera Singers with Complex Vocal Cords

First Posted: Jan 13, 2016 08:22 AM EST

Songbirds may sing just like humans do. Scientists have studied the vocal muscles on Bengalese finches and have found that they can change function to help produce different parameters of sound, similar to a trained opera singer.

Pitch is important for songbird vocalization, but there is no single muscle devoted to controlling it. The researchers found that they don't just contract one muscle to change pitch. Instead, birds have to activate a lot of different muscles in concert. These changes are different for different vocalizations.

Previous research has shown similar vocal mechanisms within the human "voice box," or larynx. The larynx houses the vocal cords and an array of muscles that help control pitch, amplitude and timbre.

Instead of a larynx, though, birds have a vocal organ called the syrinx, which holds their vocal cords deeper in their bodies. While humans have one set of vocal cords, a songbird has two sets, enabling it to produce two different sounds simultaneously, in harmony with itself.

"Lots of studies look at brain activity and how it relates to behaviors, but muscles are what translates the brain's output into behavior," said Samuel Sober, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We wanted to understand the physics and biomechanics of what a songbird's muscles are doing while singing."

The researchers found that a songbird has a complex redundancy when it comes to their vocal muscles. This, in particular, shows researchers how complicated the neural computations are to control singing in these birds.

The findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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