His office is filled with all sorts of bird books, but Duke neuroscientist Erich Jarvis didn’t become an expert on the avian family tree because of any particular interest in our feathered friends. Rather, it was his fascination with how the human brain understands and reproduces speech that brought him to the birds.
“We’ve known for many years that the singing behavior of birds is similar to speech in humans — not identical, but similar — and that the brain circuitry is similar, too,” said Jarvis, an associate professor of neurobiology at the Duke University Medical School and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “But we didn’t know whether or not those features were the same because the genes were also the same.” Now scientists do know, and the answer is yes — birds and humans use essentially the same genes to speak. After a massive international effort to sequence and compare the entire genomes of 48 species of birds representing every major order of the bird family tree, Jarvis and his colleagues found that vocal learning evolved twice or maybe three times among songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds.
“This is an exciting moment,” said Jarvis, who is also a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. “Lots of fundamental questions now can be resolved with more genomic data from a broader sampling. I got into this project because of my interest in birds as a model for vocal learning and speech production in humans, and it has opened up some amazing new vistas on brain evolution.”