The Brains of Duetting Songbirds Sync During Performances, Study Finds
Alternating their syllables with astounding speed and precision, a species of wren performs one of Mother Nature's most remarkable duets. These male and female partners produce a melody so seamless that they're often mistaken for a single bird.
So, how do they manage such incredible coordination?
To learn what makes these performances possible, neurobiologists studied the brain activity of one of Ecuador's most prolific songbirds, the plain-tail wren.
Their findings, which were recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that the brains of male and female plain-tailed wrens actually link together as they duet, essentially muting the other during their respective parts.
The auditory feedback exchanged during duets "momentarily inhibits motor circuits used for singing in the listening partner," linking their brains to coordinate turn-taking. Telepathy? Maybe.
"You could say that timing is everything," Eric Fortune, co-author of the study and neurobiologist at New Jersey Institute of Technology's Department of Biological Sciences, said in a news release. "What these wrens have shown us is that for any good collaboration, partners need to become 'one' through sensory linkages. The take-home message is that when we are cooperating well... we become a single entity with our partners."
Melissa Coleman, the paper's corresponding author and associate professor of biology at Scripps College, compares the tiny birds to jazz singers.
"Duetting wrens have a rough song structure planned before they sing, but as the song evolves, they must rapidly coordinate by receiving constant input from their counterpart," she explained.
Fortune and Coleman say the results shine a new light on the brains of cooperating animals-like humans-and how they use sensory cues to interact.
"Every achievement of humankind is based on cooperation," Fortune told CNN, "that is the feature of humans that has allowed us to do the amazing things we do."