Behavioral, Developmental, and Evolutionary Mechanisms of Socially Guided Vocal Learning of Birdsong

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Songbirds are the most common research model of human speech development, due to parallels in their behavioral, developmental, and neural mechanisms of learning. However, similarities in social influences on vocal learning remain largely unknown. Human infants utilize socially guided vocal learning, the ability to use social feedback contingent on immature vocalizations to guide vocal development. This is thought to be a rare and unusual capacity, and has only been previously demonstrated in one species of songbird. This dissertation proposes that socially guided vocal learning is more common than previously supposed, and describes the first causal evidence of this learning strategy in the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata), the most ubiquitous laboratory songbird. I explore the developmental and evolutionary prerequisites required for socially guided vocal learning to emerge, as well as the necessary neural connectivity between social motivation and vocal learning brain regions. I present findings from an experiment investigating how non-vocal feedback from zebra finch females over a video display affects vocal learning in juvenile males. Males which viewed a female arousal behavior presented contingently on their song production learned song with greater fidelity than yoked controls. I then use a longitudinal study to demonstrate that zebra finch parents respond contingently to the songs of their sons in a naturalistic family context, and that the timing and frequency of this feedback predicts song learning outcomes. Additionally, I investigate the neuroendocrine mechanisms of socially guided vocal learning by testing the hypothesis that the nonapeptide hormone arginine vasotocin (AVT, the avian homologue of vasopressin) plays an organizational role in species-typical development of social and affiliative behaviors, and resulting song learning outcomes. Finally, I expand my findings beyond zebra finches with an evolutionary model of how particular traits grant certain passerine species the developmental opportunity and functional impetus necessary to evolve socially guided vocal learning, which proposes uninvestigated species in which socially guided vocal learning may exist. Overall, my research presents evidence for a previously unknown, socially guided vocal learning strategy in the zebra finch, explores its underlying mechanisms, and emphasizes the importance of studying communicative systems within a social context.

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zebra finch; Behavioral sciences; Songbirds; Endocrinology; avian behavior; socially guided learning; vocal development; Biology; Developmental psychology


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Union Local


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Goldstein, Michael H.

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Ferguson, Melissa J.
Regan, Elizabeth
Webster, Michael Stilson, Jr

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Ph.D., Psychology

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International


dissertation or thesis

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