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Vocal tract articulation revisited: the case of the monk parakeet
Verena R. Ohms, Gabriël J. L. Beckers, Carel ten Cate, Roderick A. Suthers


Birdsong and human speech share many features with respect to vocal learning and development. However, the vocal production mechanisms have long been considered to be distinct. The vocal organ of songbirds is more complex than the human larynx, leading to the hypothesis that vocal variation in birdsong originates mainly at the sound source, while in humans it is primarily due to vocal tract filtering. However, several recent studies have indicated the importance of vocal tract articulators such as the beak and oropharyngeal–esophageal cavity. In contrast to most other bird groups, parrots have a prominent tongue, raising the possibility that tongue movements may also be of significant importance in vocal production in parrots, but evidence is rare and observations often anecdotal. In the current study we used X-ray cinematographic imaging of naturally vocalizing monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) to assess which articulators are possibly involved in vocal tract filtering in this species. We observed prominent tongue height changes, beak opening movements and tracheal length changes, which suggests that all of these components play an important role in modulating vocal tract resonance. Moreover, the observation of tracheal shortening as a vocal articulator in live birds has to our knowledge not been described before. We also found strong positive correlations between beak opening and amplitude as well as changes in tongue height and amplitude in several types of vocalization. Our results suggest considerable differences between parrot and songbird vocal production while at the same time the parrot's vocal articulation might more closely resemble human speech production in the sense that both make extensive use of the tongue as a vocal articulator.


  • Supplementary material available online at http://jeb.biologists.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1242/jeb.064717/-/DC1


    This work was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) [grant number 815.02.011 to C.t.C.] and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) [grant number NINDS R01 NS029467 to R.A.S.]. Deposited in PMC for release after 12 months.

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