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The role of nonlinear dynamics of the syrinx in the vocalizations of a songbird


Birdsong is characterized by the modulation of sound properties over a wide range of timescales1. Understanding the mechanisms by which the brain organizes this complex temporal behaviour is a central motivation in the study of the song control and learning system2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Here we present evidence that, in addition to central neural control, a further level of temporal organization is provided by nonlinear oscillatory dynamics that are intrinsic to the avian vocal organ. A detailed temporal and spectral examination of song of the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) reveals a class of rapid song modulations that are consistent with transitions in the dynamical state of the syrinx. Furthermore, in vitro experiments show that the syrinx can produce a sequence of oscillatory states that are both spectrally and temporally complex in response to the slow variation of respiratory or syringeal parameters. As a consequence, simple variations in a small number of neural signals can result in a complex acoustic sequence.

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Figure 1: Spectral and temporal characteristics of zebra-finch song.
Figure 2: Patterns of acoustic signals generated in the in vitro syrinx preparation during slow modulation of syringeal and flow parameters.
Figure 3: Stroboscopic observation of in vitro syringeal oscillations.
Figure 4: Results of a simple numerical model of airflow through a compliant constriction.


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We thank W. Denk, M. Konishi and S. S.-H. Wang for comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Michale S. Fee.

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Fee, M., Shraiman, B., Pesaran, B. et al. The role of nonlinear dynamics of the syrinx in the vocalizations of a songbird. Nature 395, 67–71 (1998).

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