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Curr Biol. 2013 Oct 7;23(19):1896-901. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.07.057. Epub 2013 Sep 26.

The progressive loss of syntactical structure in bird song along an island colonization chain.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, USA; Institute of Biology, Leiden University, PO Box 9505, 2300 RA Leiden, the Netherlands; School of Biology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews KY16 9TS, UK. Electronic address:


Cultural transmission can increase the flexibility of behavior, such as bird song. Nevertheless, this flexibility often appears to be constrained, sometimes by preferences for learning certain traits over others, a phenomenon known as "biased" learning or transmission. The sequential colonization of the Atlantic Islands by the chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) provides a unique model system in which to investigate how the variability of a cultural trait has evolved. We used novel computational methods to analyze chaffinch song from twelve island and continental populations and to infer patterns of evolution in song structure. We found that variability of the subunits within songs ("syllables") differed moderately between populations but was not predicted by whether the population was continental or not. In contrast, we found that the sequencing of syllables within songs ("syntax") was less structured in island than continental populations and in fact decreased significantly after each colonization. Syntactical structure was very clear in the mainland European populations but was almost entirely absent in the most recently colonized island, Gran Canaria. Our results suggest that colonization leads to the progressive loss of a species-specific feature of song, syntactical structure.

Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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