You say you have a song in your heart? Well, it seems that’s natural, because it’s in your DNA.
Scientific American reports that scientists have discovered by sequencing 48 genomes of different bird species that birdsong is related to human speech. Only a few animals have the ability to sustain and modulate vocal signals. Birds and humans—along with dolphins, whales and elephants—are in that elite group.
The ramifications are not obvious at first, but those who work with genetics were quick to pick up on the finding’s implications.
By learning how birds learned to sing, researchers can discover the secrets to humans’ mastery of vocal chords. In the case of vocal disorders, if affected genes are similar to those in birds, one can study song birds and test their function, according to Erich Jarvis, one of the leaders of the birdsong effort and an associate professor of neurobiology at Duke University.
Biologists have long looked to birds, particularly zebra finches, to understand how language is learned. That because not many other animals use vocal calls to truly communicate. Of the primates, only homo sapiens is able to speak. All the other apes and chimpanzees can only hoot, shriek, and make a sort of barking sound. Those noises don’t gain in complexity with age, going from a baby talk to adult language. Yet, among songbirds, the songs do gain in complexity, The also are learned from elders, can be modulated in pitch, and in some cases, birds can be “bilingual,” singing songs of its own species and a related or helper species.
Gene researchers found that humans and birds share 55 genes in regions of the brain. So when a bird sings, it sets off cascades of neurons firing in that part of their brain. The same thing happens when a human makes a phone call.
Scientists say that the findings aren’t too surprising, because avian species and humans both evolved from the same part of the “tree of life.” Some species specialized in distinguishing fine scents or developing laser-like vision to help in their environment; humans and birds chose vocalization as a way to stay close to others.
The Scientific American article doesn’t offer any more guesses on the usefulness of this research, but I’m willing to bet it will help us decode or at least become familiar with the language of dolphins and perhaps whales. For decades, biologists studying the cetacean world have known that dolphins call to each other in distinctive blips or whistles of sounds.Some of it can’t be detected by the human ear, but experiments have proved the language is there. The fact that dolphins are self-aware and smart as a whip, has made them the darlings of the sea long before “Flipper” went off television. And now we know they can do a lot more than tricks on water.
It would be fascinating to find out what the dolphins think about and if they truly do save humans in peril at sea. Maybe we could even sing with one—and throw in a few song birds for accompaniment.
The more you look, the more the spiritual dictum “We are all one” proves to be true.