Mechanisms that contribute to “universals” in learned song patterns in zebra finches

A number of songbird species, including zebra finches, demonstrate commonalities or “universals” in learned song structures across populations, and cultural propagation and biological predispositions in vocal learning have been proposed to underlie such universals. To reveal the contribution of biological predispositions in learning to universal acoustic patterns in zebra finches, we individually tutored naïve juveniles with randomized and unbiased sequences of syllables and analyzed the extent to which birds produced common sequences (James and Sakata, Current Biology, 2017). In support of biological predispositions, birds tutored with randomized sequences produced songs with numerous similarities to each other and to wild populations of birds. Furthermore, the songs of tutored zebra finches contained acoustic patterns that are commonly observed in speech and music. These data suggest that sensorimotor processes that are shared across a wide range of vertebrates could underlie “universals” in learned behaviors.