A Social Shake-up by Song

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Science  10 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6133, pp. 661
DOI: 10.1126/science.340.6133.661-c

Song, in birds, is a fundamental means of communication. Research over several decades has revealed how individuals learn, produce, and perceive song, but communication, by definition, occurs among multiple actors. Maguire et al. show that changes in song preference in individual female brown-headed cowbirds has cascading behavioral effects, altering social structure and interaction among all the birds within a flock. Targeted lesions that disrupted the song center of the brain in experimental females reduced their preference for the songs of dominant males. When these females were then released back into a mixed social group, their reduced song preference increased their solicitation of males other than their own mates. This in turn inspired other females to also increase solicitation and altered dominance structure among males, who now spent more of their time singing to females. Furthermore, network analysis showed that social networks that included females with lesions were less stable and connected than those containing control females. These results show that behaviors we often think of as specific to an individual, such as dominance, may in fact be emergent properties of group interactions. Simultaneously, they also emphasize the key role that individuals can play in shaping group dynamics.

PLoS One 10.1371/journal.pone.0063239 (2013).

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