Public Release: 

How genes and experience influence birdsong

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Researchers report how the interplay of genes and experience influences differences in learned birdsong. Previous studies have shown that differences in birdsong within a species reflect variation in learning, but some song heterogeneity could result from genetic diversity. David Mets and Michael Brainard tutored genetically diverse juvenile Bengalese finches (Lonchura striata domestica) on synthetic songs that varied in tempo, which is a learned and quantifiable feature of birdsong controlled by central neural circuitry. Young birds tutored on a medium-tempo synthetic song sang learned songs with a broad range of tempos and with learned tempos that strongly correlated with paternal birds' tempos, despite never having heard the paternal birds sing. Under the synthetic tutoring paradigm, the paternal birds' genetic makeup and the tempo of the synthetic song explained approximately 55% and 21% of the variability in the young birds' tempos, respectively. In a further analysis, living, unrelated, adult males tutored another group of hatchlings. Under live tutoring, the paternal birds' genetic makeup and the tempo of the live tutors' songs explained approximately 16% and 53% of variability in the young birds' tempos, respectively--a reversal of the balance between the genetic and experiential factors seen under synthetic tutoring. According to the authors, heritable genetic contributions influence individual variation in song tempo, but the degree to which genes drive song tempo varies with the quality of instruction.


Article #17-13031: "Genetic variation interacts with experience to determine interindividual differences in learned song," by David G. Mets and Michael S. Brainard.

MEDIA CONTACT: Michael S. Brainard, University of California, San Francisco, CA; e-mail: <>; David G. Mets, University of California, San Francisco, CA; tel: 510-725-8738; e-mail:

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