Harmonious Insights: Exploring the Connection Between Vocal Learning, Problem Solving Abilities, and Brain Size

A recent study published in the journal Science has unveiled the remarkable cognitive abilities of European starlings. These birds, known for their exceptional vocal learning skills, have also demonstrated themselves to be adept problem solvers, shedding light on a potential co-evolution of vocal learning, cognitive prowess, and relative brain size in certain species.

European starlings possess a diverse repertoire of vocalizations, constantly acquiring new warbles, whistles, and songs throughout their lives, making them top-tier avian vocal learners. This research, led by Jean-Nicolas Audet, a research associate in Erich Jarvis’s laboratory at The Rockefeller University, provides compelling evidence that species proficient in complex vocal learning are also exceptional problem solvers—a connection that had not been definitively established until now.

Complex vocal learning, which involves the ability to learn and reproduce a wide range of sounds, is exhibited by only a select few animal groups, including humans, elephants, whales, seals, bats, songbirds, parrots, and hummingbirds. To investigate the link between vocal learning and cognitive abilities in songbirds, Audet and his team conducted extensive field research over three years. They captured hundreds of wild birds from 21 species using mist nets at The Rockefeller University Field Research Center in New York’s Hudson Valley—a protected area that minimizes human interference and is ideal for studying wild bird behavior.

Among the captured birds, starlings, blue jays, and gray catbirds (related to mockingbirds) stood out as the only species capable of mimicking other species, representing the pinnacle of vocal learning prowess.

The researchers then subjected 214 birds from 23 species, including two lab-raised species, to a battery of cognitive tests. These tests evaluated problem-solving abilities, self-control, color-food association learning, and adaptability to changing conditions. The results revealed a strong correlation between problem-solving skills and vocal learning abilities, with starlings, blue jays, and catbirds excelling in both domains. Notably, there was no significant association between other cognitive tests and vocal learning complexity.

Furthermore, the study found that advanced vocal learners and proficient problem solvers had relatively larger brains compared to their body sizes, suggesting a possible biological basis for their exceptional abilities. The researchers aim to further investigate the brain regions responsible for both vocal learning and problem-solving in these species.

In summary, this research highlights the co-evolution of vocal learning, problem-solving abilities, and brain size in certain bird species, potentially contributing to their biological fitness. These findings lead Erich Jarvis to introduce the term “vocal learning cognitive complex” to describe this suite of interconnected traits. This study enhances our understanding of the evolution of complex behaviors and their interplay in species like European starlings.

Reference: “Songbird species that display more-complex vocal learning are better problem-solvers and have larger brains” by Jean-Nicolas Audet, Mélanie Couture, and Erich D. Jarvis, 14 September 2023, Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.adh3428.

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