A study uncovers a strong link between vocal learning complexity and cognitive abilities in songbirds, with birds exhibiting more intricate vocal mimicry also showcasing superior problem-solving skills and having proportionally larger brains.
The relationship between vocal learning complexity and cognitive abilities in songbirds has been a subject of intrigue. Vocal learning complexity, defined as the capacity to imitate sounds, has long been recognized as essential for human spoken language and is believed to signify advanced cognitive functions. Apart from humans, this ability is also evident in a limited number of taxa, primarily songbirds. Notably, species that display complex vocal learning behaviors are often perceived to possess superior cognitive capabilities. However, a quantifiable association across species has remained unproven.
Research Approach and Methodology
The methodology employed in this study provides a blueprint for analyzing similar patterns in other vocal learning species. To explore the potential link between vocal learning complexity and other cognitive or physiological characteristics, Jean-Nicolas Audet and his team carried out a series of behavioral tests on 214 birds spanning 23 species. This included 2 domesticated species, 19 wild-caught songbird species, and two species that do not learn vocals. By amalgamating published data on these species’ vocal behaviors, the team assessed four cognitive abilities for each bird: problem-solving, associative learning, reversal learning, and self-control.
The results were compelling. Birds with the most intricate vocal learning capabilities not only showcased superior problem-solving skills but also had proportionally larger brains. Furthermore, the strong correlation between vocal learning abilities, problem-solving skills, and brain size remained consistent, even after accounting for individual differences, phylogeny, and other potential non-cognitive variables that could influence the results.
For more on this research, see Vocal Learning Linked to Problem Solving Skills and Brain Size.
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.