Collective Behaviour - Summer Seminar Series 2023

Duel-driven song plasticity in canaries in social environments

Dr. Pepe Alcami, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich / Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence


Singing by songbirds is a complex, culturally learned motor skill that resembles human speech. Birdsong is acquired during juvenile development and additionally in some songbird species before the onset of the breeding season. Outside of these specific periods, it is believed that the singing motor program is stable or ‘crystallized’, that is, that birdsong does not change. Challenging this, here we demonstrate that in a seasonal songbird, social interactions during the breeding season induce a novel form of singing plasticity in social environments. Using custom-made telemetric backpack technology to monitor song-based communication from freely behaving canaries, we show that adult males temporally overlap their songs during aggressive ‘duels’. Singing duels induce an unexpected fast plasticity in song length, thereby enhancing singing performance and flexibility of a sexually selected behaviour. Overall, our findings in social environments reveal a previously unrecognized type of song plasticity different from the well-studied slow song plasticity as an imitation process for display purposes and provide a model of fast plasticity of complex motor skills induced by social interactions.

Pepe Alcami studied biology in Madrid and neuroscience in Paris, where he received his PhD investigating the impact of electrical coupling on neural computation, research that he continued during a brief stay in Woods Hole. During his postdoctoral research with Manfred Gahr at the MPI for Ornithology in Seewiesen, he was soon fascinated by songbird behaviour, expanding his research interests to behaviour in social environments. As an Assistant Professor at Munich University (LMU) since 2020, his laboratory investigates the computations that nervous systems evolved to perform natural behaviours at different levels: synapses, neurons, and neural networks. He combines electrophysiology, anatomy, behavioural, and computational approaches to study learning and production of birdsong.

Datum: 2023-04-24