The Progressive Loss of Syntactical Structure in Bird Song along an Island Colonization Chain

Robert F. Lachlan, Machteld N. Verzijden, Caroline S. Bernard, Peter Paul Jonker, Bram Koese, Shirley Jaarsma, Willemijn Spoor, Peter J.B. Slater, Carel Ten Cate

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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 [1]. The sequential colonization of the Atlantic Islands by the chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) [2] 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1896-1901
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number19
Early online date26 Sept 2013
Publication statusPublished - 7 Oct 2013

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