Never Too Young to Learn

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Science  30 Nov 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6111, pp. 1129
DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6111.1129-a

Recognition between parent and offspring is an essential component of reproduction for many species. Its importance is more profound for species that undergo prolonged separations followed by reunions, often facilitated through call recognition by both mothers and offspring, or for species in which there may be competition for parental attention from freeloaders. In most cases, mother and infant imprint on each others' calls shortly after birth or appear to have a genetically based recognition template. Colombelli-Négrel et al. show that superb fairy wrens go one step further by singing a specific incubation song to their in-egg embryos, which helps them to oust parasitizing cuckoo chicks that have not learned the brood's “password.” To ensure that both parents are in the know, females also incorporated their incubation song into begging calls given to their male partners, resulting in males also being more parental to chicks singing the right song. It is not clear why the cuckoo chicks, which are also exposed to the incubation song as eggs, do not produce accurate passwords. Perhaps the early learning ability of the wrens has allowed them to gain ground in the parasitic arms race.

Curr. Biol. 22, 10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.025 (2012).

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