Evolution of song culture in the zebra finch

Olga Feher PhD dissertation, May 2009


Cumulative cultural evolution is when behavior in subsequent generations of learners builds on the accumulated information of previous generations to such an extent that no individual learner can produce the behavior on its own. Many examples exist in humans, but in nonhuman animals there are only a handful of suspected cases. Here, we provide the first demonstration of cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory in nonhuman animals. We raised zebra finches in complete acoustic and social isolation to create “uncultured” animals. Isolate zebra finches sing unstructured songs that are different from wild-type songs in many aspects such as spectral details of syllables and syntactic organization. We developed an automated procedure to quantify the differences between isolate and wild-type song at different timescales of song structure: spectral features, duration of song notes and song rhythm. We then used the isolate birds to teach their songs to juveniles who became the tutors for the next generation of learners and so on recursively. We followed the evolution of isolate song over multiple generations. We found that isolate song was gradually transforming into wild-type song over 3-4 learning generations. In addition to this experiment where we trained young birds in individual tutor-pupil pairs, we established a semi-natural colony with an isolate founder and tracked song changes over multiple generations of learners. In the colony, the song also progressed towards wild-type song in a few generations, but some of the details of the changes differed between the two conditions. The rapid evolution indicates that wild-type song culture is encoded in every bird, but it takes multiple generations to surface. The young birds used imitation biases to change isolate song features into wild-type features.


Chapter 1: How isolate songs differ from wild-type songs

Chapter 2: Imitation of ISO song

Chapter 3: Evolution of ISO song over multiple generations

Chapter 4: Cumulative cultural evolution in an isolated colony

Discussion & Appendix