The songbirds that researchers have studied, like humans – regardless of what language they speak – tend to use shorter elements (whether words or sounds) when composing sentences. longer. Linguists believe that this model, known as Menzerath’s Law, can make communication more efficient by making things easier to understand or say.
But the McGill team suggests that, at least in songbirds, physical factors such as muscle fatigue and limited lung capacity may also play a role. They also speculate that similar factors could contribute to seeing Menzerath’s Law in humans.
Do physical elements play a role in the vocal patterns of songbirds (and humans)?
“Although we see Menzerath’s Law in all of the songbird species we have examined, and others have seen it in primates and penguins, we are not sure that this necessarily reflects an efficacy of increased communication in non-human animals, ”said Jon Sakata, professor at McGill’s Department of Biology and lead author of the recently published paper in Current biology. “It is possible that these communication patterns that we have seen in songbirds are caused by predispositions and physical constraints. Interestingly, Sakata also notes that the brain mechanisms regulating respiration and vocal muscles appear to be organized similarly in birds and humans.
Even the songs of uneducated birds follow similar patterns
The idea that physical elements may play a role in these song patterns is supported by the fact that when researchers compared the song patterns of birds that had been typically raised and educated by their parents with those that were not. learned to sing by their parents (uneducated birds), they found the same patterns. “The individual sound units produced by uneducated birds were very different from those produced by generally reared birds,” said Logan James, the paper’s first author and former doctoral student in the lab of Professor Sakata, now a post-researcher. doctoral degree at the University of Texas at Austin. “However, the ‘rules’ by which they organize these outliers are indistinguishable from generally bred birds. These results suggest that physical predispositions or limitations may play a role in the production of these singing patterns. “
Further work will need to be done in this area to see if this is indeed the case. For example, work linking species variation in the strength of Menzerath’s law to species variation in the biomechanics of voice production would be a useful next step.
James LS, Mori C, Wada K, Sakata JT. Phylogeny and mechanisms of shared hierarchical patterns in bird song. Current biology. 2021;0(0). doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.04.015
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