Bird song crosses species boundary

And Your Bird Can Sing: Celine Dion (right) faces off with some sort of antbird in a battle of song. Stranger things have happened in nature.
And Your Bird Can Sing: Celine Dion (right) faces off with some sort of antbird in a battle of song. Stranger things have happened in nature.Courtesy kookr and McflyIer (composite) via Flickr
Remember how odd it felt to learn the Rolling Stones' song, I Wanna Be Your Man, was written by the Beatles' Lennon & McCartney? Or that off-putting twinge of “hmmm” you experienced when hunky hipster Tom Jones covered Kiss, a song written and originally performed by Prince (AKA The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, AKA His Glyphship, AKA The Artist, AKA Prince (again))? Or the unsettling angst brought on by Celine Dion screaming through AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long? In each case, it’s not like they were terrible renditions (I’ll leave that judgement to the music critics), but there was just something not quite right about it. They all just seemed so... unnatural.

Well, as it turns out, it may be a more common natural phenomenon than previously thought. At least in the world of birds. And I’m not talking about Roger McGuinn’s band.

Researchers at Oxford have discovered two different species of antbird in South America whistling the same territorial tune to help eliminate mating competition. They’re claiming it’s the first such discovery.

Although the two birds belong to the same family (Thamnophilidae) they are distinct species (Hypocnemis peruviana and Hypocnemis subflava). Genetic tests done by the researchers showed the two species separated from a common ancestor about three millions years ago. This means the territorial song developed before they split off from their common ancestor.

During the study (the results of which appear in the current issue of Evolution) the scientists made recordings of the songs of males of both species listen here and played them back to competitors in their territories. The reaction in each was similar.

"When we played the song of the [rival] species, the resident bird responded as aggressively as it did to its own species," said Dr Joe Tobias, who led the research along with colleague Nathalie Seddon.

Even though the territorial songs remained similar after the split, other characteristics (such as plumage color and mating calls) diverged along very different paths, and probably aid in preventing confrontation and crossbreeding between the two species.

In effect, the territorial songs of these birds are more or less interchangeable in design and function. Given that they last shared a common ancestor more than 3 million years ago, it is almost equivalent to humans and chimpanzees - which diverged around 5 million years ago - using the same language to settle disputes over resources.

– Dr. Joe Tobias in a press release

So, this kind of cross-species convergence - with different types singing the same song - may not be such an unnatural thing. But then again, Britney Spears did do a cover of the Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

Ecological Society of America blog
Colleen McLinn and animal communications
Some other interesting songbird behavior

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

SyDnEy_RaE's picture
SyDnEy_RaE says:

what does Celine Dion have to do with science?

posted on Wed, 09/16/2009 - 5:37pm
mdr's picture
mdr says:

She's a stellar celebrity (cosmology and sociology) who commands astronomical sums of money (economics and mathematics) for amplifying sound waves (physics and audiology) through her larynx (anatomy) by converting oxygen to carbon dioxide (biochemistry and anatomy again), to name just a few.

posted on Fri, 09/18/2009 - 11:53am

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