Encoding vocal culture

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Science  09 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6317, pp. 1234-1235
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal3205

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How does an inexperienced young animal acquire proper communication skills that will serve it well as an adult in a complex social environment? Juvenile songbirds acquire their vocal repertoire by imitating songs from adults. But song imitation per se is not the ultimate goal of their vocal development (1). Birdsong may carry information about species identity, group identity (local culture), individual identity, and—perhaps most important—about a bird's qualities as a potential mate (2, 3). There is some tension between these developmental goals: Because birds can imitate songs very accurately, local song convergence could compromise individual identity. Similarly, the accumulation of geographical drifts in song structure could potentially compromise the species-specific “signature” of the song. On pages 1278 and 1282 of this issue, Gadagkar et al. (4) and Araki et al. (5), respectively, discover neuronal coding of singing performance error and of species song identity. Together, their findings reveal an elegant natural solution that alleviates the tension between cultural transmission and retaining a species-specific “signature” in songs over generations.