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Participants: Dr Katherine L Buchanan (PI), Dr Matt Berg, Dr Steffen Leitner and Prof Manfred Gahr (Max Planck Seewiesen, Germany).
Aims and background: Complex song repertoires are the acoustic version of the peacock's tail. This project will address the underlying reasons for their evolution and the constraints on further elaboration.:
Song learning is condition-dependent. Building on previous work by the Principal supervisor the student will test the effects of early developmental conditions on gene expression in the song learning and song production areas of the brain of the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata), in response to song playback. By quantifying gene expression, as a proxy for biological activity, we can separate song learning from production for the first time. This will reveal whether song learning or song production (or both) are condition-dependent processes, explaining the constraints on song repertoire evolution. This will form the first test of the condition-dependence of learning in birds. The student will combine acoustic analyses, animal handling and rearing, experimental design with techniques from neurobiology to quantify whether the ability to learn is condition-dependent.
Scientific significance and innovation: This project will form the first test of the condition-dependence of a learned task in a bird. The project makes use of protocols recently set up by the Principal supervisor to quantify Immediate Early Gene expression in the songbird brain, so demonstrating biological activity associated with song exposure. This technique was recently set up under near-miss funding to the Principal supervisor and is the basis for a current ARC Discovery application and will form an integral part of 2011 ARC Discovery and Linkage applications.
Potential national benefit and strategic alignment with the aims of the CIE: This project will explain the process of song learning in birds, a process which is analogous to language development in humans. This project is aligned with the aims of the CIE in that it addresses the interaction of birds with their environment and the consequent evolutionary changes.