Persons of the Week: Washington Univ. Bird Researchers

Work on Australian Zebra Finch may unlock secrets of human language.

April 2, 2010— -- The secret to understanding how humans learned to speak may come from an unlikely place -- the love songs of the Australian Zebra Finch. This week, scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine announced that after 20 years of work, they have finally mapped the genome of the small bird species that learns love songs the same way a human learns words.

"Most animals instinctively vocalize sounds, for example, cats "meow" and dogs "bark," said Dr. Wesley Warren, who has spearheaded the project at the university in St. Louis, Mo. "In the zebra finch, songs are learned and passed down from the father."

Each finch learns only one song in its lifetime, which lasts just a few seconds. The songs are intended to attract mates, but humans have reason to listen closely, too. The birds' DNA reflects exactly the same genes that have allowed humans to create a speaking world. The new information may give hope to those who struggle with language.

Giving Hope to People with Parkinson's Disease

"What we have now is a map of the birds ability to speak," said Jake Ward, an editor at Popular Science magazine. "We can then compare that to the genes of people who have Parkinson's disease or people who stutter, and we can see, here is a gene that works and here in this person with Parkinson's is a gene that doesn't."

Finches are not the only creatures that learn the songs of their fathers. Elephants, dolphins and parrots, among others, are all vocal learners, and though scientists have studied their language, they have not finished sequencing their genetic codes.

You're probably familiar with an elephant's trumpet-like call, but the animals also have a whole other language that we can't even hear. Elephants communicate with low-pitched hums that signal, 'Let's go!' or 'I like you!' The infrasonic elephant chat can travel as far as two-and-a-half miles away.

A World of Language That Humans Can't Hear

"The truth of the matter is that we are not sensitive enough to really hear everything that's going on," Ward said. "We as humans are really just beginning to understand how sophisticated animal communication really is."

So in fact, we live on a planet bubbling with animals' conversations and songs that someday, humans may be able to speak.

"Whales singing in the ocean, the rumblings of elephants, clicking noises of dolphins, these things are such subtle forms of communication that have evolved over millions of years," said Ward. "So listening to the language of the world has really only just begun."

So we choose as our Persons of the Week, the bird researchers at Washington University for telling us about another voice in the chorus welcoming spring.

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