Speech and its evolution…Long story! Nobody knows where does it start! This so complex skill has to begin somewhere. The new Science magazine shows us more about it!
Complex language is a uniquely human trait, but vocal learning – the ability to pick up new sounds by imitating others – is not. Some mammals, including whales, dolphins and elephants, share our ability to learn new vocalisations. So do three groups of birds: the songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds.
We’ve known for many years that the singing behavior of birds is similar to speech in humans—not identical, but similar—and that the brain circuitry is similar, too,” said Jarvis, an associate professor of neurobiology at the Duke University Medical School and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “But we didn’t know whether or not those features were the same because the genes were also the same.”
So what did they do?
Andreas Pfenning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleague compared maps of genetic activity – transcriptomes – in brain tissue taken from the zebra finch, budgerigar and Anna’s hummingbird, representing the three groups of vocal-learning birds. […]Their results showed that FOXP2 is just one of 55 genes that show a similar pattern of activity in the brains of humans and the vocal-learning birds. Those same genes show different patterns of activity in the brains of animals incapable of vocal learning.
“Speech is difficult to study in human brains,” said Jarvis. “Whales and elephants learn speech and songs, but they’re too big to house in the lab. Now that we have a deeper understanding of how similar birdsong brain regions are to human speech regions at the genetic level, I think they’ll be a better model than ever.”
Probably our common ancestor with birds and other animals (may have lived 310 million years ago) had genes which later were used for articulate speech and vocal learning! And was found a new laboratory model for research in the field of human speaking abilities!