Tiniest New Zealand Bird Delivers Evolution Lesson

Scientists are Rethinking How and When Vocal Learning Evolved in Birds

Reading Time: 2 minutes

New Zealand’s rifleman or titipounamu, the country’s smallest bird, has surprised researchers by showing a potential for learning new sounds.

Scientists from the University of Auckland are leading the charge in challenging the long-held belief that this bird group is incapable of sound learning. They are conducting a comprehensive study on the rifleman as part of their broader investigation into the evolution of vocal learning in birds.

Scientists are rethinking the evolution of vocal learning in birds. New Zealand’s smallest bird, the rifleman or titipounamu, may have a rudimentary version of the talent possessed by parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds.

The researchers behind the study, Dr. Kristal Cain and Dr. Ines G. Moran found that titipounamu living near each other had similar vocal signatures, while those living far apart did not. This suggests that the birds learn their sounds from each other rather than relying on innate abilities. 

Weighing as much as just a few paper clips, these birds inhabit high-altitude forests, feed on insects, and produce high-pitched sounds that are often inaudible to humans.

The rifleman is a surviving native wren species in New Zealand and is considered an evolutionary link between songbirds and parrots. If these wrens are indeed vocal learners, as the research suggests, it could mean that the common ancestor of parrots and songbirds also had rudimentary learning abilities. 

This challenges previous beliefs about when vocal learning evolved in birds, indicating that it might have occurred much earlier than previously estimated.

The study involved observing and recording thousands of feeding calls made by titipounamu, analyzing spectrograms to identify unique vocal signatures, and studying genetic information to understand the role of genetics versus social environment in vocal learning. 

Findings hint at the presence of rudimentary vocal learning abilities in these birds, suggesting that the classification of birds as either vocal learners or non-learners may need to be reconsidered.

The research, which involved a multidisciplinary approach encompassing bioacoustics, genetics, and behavioral ecology, was made possible with the help of advanced technology and collaboration with various organizations. The scientists acknowledge the support of the Maungaharuru region’s mana whenua, the University’s engineering team, the Department of Conservation, AgResearch, and the Centre for eResearch in conducting this groundbreaking study.

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