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      De novo establishment of wild-type song culture in the zebra finch

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          Abstract

          What sort of culture would evolve in an island colony of naive founders? This question cannot be studied experimentally in humans. We performed the analogous experiment using socially learned birdsong. Culture is typically viewed as consisting of traits inherited epigenetically, via social learning. However, cultural diversity has species-typical constraints 1, presumably of genetic origin. A celebrated, if contentious, example is whether a universal grammar constrains syntactic diversity in human languages 2. Oscine songbirds exhibit song learning and provide biologically tractable models of culture: members of a species show individual variation in song 3 and geographically separated groups have local song dialects 4, 5. Different species exhibit distinct song cultures 6, 7, suggestive of genetic constraints 8, 9. Absent such constraints, innovations and copying errors should cause unbounded variation over multiple generations or geographical distance, contrary to observations 9. We asked if wild-type song culture might emerge over multiple generations in an isolated colony founded by isolates, and if so, how this might happen and what type of social environment is required 10. Zebra finch isolates, unexposed to singing males during development, produce song with characteristics that differ from the wild-type song found in laboratory 11 or natural colonies. In tutoring lineages starting from isolate founders, we quantified alterations in song across tutoring generations in two social environments: tutor-pupil pairs in sound-isolated chambers and an isolated semi-natural colony. In both settings, juveniles imitated the isolate tutors, but changed certain characteristics of the songs. These alterations accumulated over learning generations. Consequently, songs evolved toward the wild-type in 3–4 generations. Thus, species-typical song culture can appear de novo. Our study has parallels with language change and evolution 12, 13. In analogy to models in quantitative genetics 14, 15, we model song culture as a multi-generational phenotype, partly encoded genetically in an isolate founding population, influenced by environmental variables, and taking multiple generations to emerge.

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          Bird Song

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            CULTURALLY TRANSMITTED PATTERNS OF VOCAL BEHAVIOR IN SPARROWS.

            Male white-crowned sparrows have song "dialects," acquired in about the first 100 days of life by learning from older males. In the laboratory an alien white-crowned sparrow dialect can be taught. Once the song is established further acoustical experience does not change the pattern. White-crowned sparrows do not copy recorded songs of other sparrow species presented under similar conditions.
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              Computational and evolutionary aspects of language.

              Language is our legacy. It is the main evolutionary contribution of humans, and perhaps the most interesting trait that has emerged in the past 500 million years. Understanding how darwinian evolution gives rise to human language requires the integration of formal language theory, learning theory and evolutionary dynamics. Formal language theory provides a mathematical description of language and grammar. Learning theory formalizes the task of language acquisition it can be shown that no procedure can learn an unrestricted set of languages. Universal grammar specifies the restricted set of languages learnable by the human brain. Evolutionary dynamics can be formulated to describe the cultural evolution of language and the biological evolution of universal grammar.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                0410462
                6011
                Nature
                Nature
                0028-0836
                1476-4687
                6 April 2009
                3 May 2009
                28 May 2009
                28 November 2009
                : 459
                : 7246
                : 564-568
                Affiliations
                [1 ] Department of Biology, City College, City University of New York, New York 10031, USA
                [2 ] Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, New York 11724, US
                Author notes
                Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to O.F. ( olcifeher@ 123456gmail.com )
                Article
                nihpa103267
                10.1038/nature07994
                2693086
                19412161
                01a85194-0a73-40a6-9321-081b63e0ea86
                Funding
                Funded by: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders : NIDCD
                Award ID: R01 DC004722-09 ||DC
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