How Are Parrots Able to Imitate Sounds So Well?

posted: 06/24/15
by: Discovery.com Staff
Detail of face and beak of lilac-crowned parrot. Amazona finschi. Sonoran Desert, Mexico, North America.
Jeff Foott/DCL

Very few animals are vocal learners, creatures that can learn and imitate sounds. Of those few, parrots are probably the most notable, and researchers from Duke University have finally figured out why exactly Polly is such a robust vocal learner.

In a new study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers explain that parrot brains have unique "shell" structures that are responsible for vocal learning. Although the shell has existed for at least 29 million years, it has gone undetected in academic research for several decades -- researchers are only now realizing that the shell is its own distinct structure.

"The first thing that surprised me when [I was] looking at the new results is, 'Wow, how did I miss this all these years? How did everybody else miss this all these years?" said study lead author Erich Jarvis, associate professor of neurobiology at Duke.

"The surprise to me was more about human psychology and what we look for and how biased we are in what we look for. Once you see it, it's obvious. I have these brain sections from 15 years ago, and now I can see it."

The area of the parrot's brain responsible for vocal learning also controls movement, which could explain why certain parrot species are able to dance to music.

Click here to read the full study in the open-access journal PLOS One

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