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Proc Biol Sci. 2004 Nov 22;271(1555):2381-6.

Developmental stress selectively affects the song control nucleus HVC in the zebra finch.

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  • 1Cardiff School of Biosciences, Cardiff University, Main Building, Park Place, Cardiff CF10 3TL, UK. buchanankl1@cf.ac.uk


Songbirds sing complex songs as a result of evolution through sexual selection. The evolution of such sexually selected traits requires genetic control, as well as selection on their expression. Song is controlled by a discrete neural pathway in the brain, and song complexity has been shown to correlate with the volume of specific song control nuclei. As such, the development of these nuclei, in particular the high vocal centre (HVC), is thought to be the mechanism controlling signal expression indicating male quality. We tested the hypothesis that early developmental stress selectively affects adult HVC size, compared with other brain nuclei. We did this by raising cross-fostered zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) under stressed and controlled conditions and determining the effect on adult HVC size. Our results confirm the strong influence of environmental conditions, particularly on HVC development, and therefore on the expression of complex songs. The results also show that both environmental and genetic factors affect the development of several brain nuclei, highlighting the developmental plasticity of the songbird brain. In all, these results explain how the complex song repertoires of songbirds can evolve as honest indicators of male quality.

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