Wild nightingales flexibly match whistle pitch in real time

Giacomo Costalunga, Carolina Sanchez Carpena, Susanne Seltmann, Jonathan I. Benichov, Daniela Vallentin

Interactive vocal communication, similar to a human conversation, requires flexible and real-time changes to vocal output in relation to preceding auditory stimuli. These vocal adjustments are essential to ensuring both the suitable timing and content of the interaction. Precise timing of dyadic vocal exchanges has been investigated in a variety of species, including humans. In contrast, the ability of non-human animals to accurately adjust specific spectral features of vocalization extemporaneously in response to incoming auditory information is less well studied. One spectral feature of acoustic signals is the fundamental frequency, which we perceive as pitch. Many animal species can discriminate between sound frequencies, but real-time detection and reproduction of an arbitrary pitch have only been observed in humans. Here, we show that nightingales in the wild can match the pitch of whistle songs while singing in response to conspecifics or pitch-controlled whistle playbacks. Nightingales matched whistles across their entire pitch production range indicating that they can flexibly tune their vocal output along a wide continuum. Prompt whistle pitch matches were more precise than delayed ones, suggesting the direct mapping of auditory information onto a motor command to achieve online vocal replication of a heard pitch. Although nightingales’ songs follow annual cycles of crystallization and deterioration depending on breeding status, the observed pitch-matching behavior is present year-round, suggesting a stable neural circuit independent of seasonal changes in physiology. Our findings represent the first case of non-human instantaneous vocal imitation of pitch, highlighting a promising model for understanding sensorimotor transformation within an interactive context.

Curr Biol. 33, 1–10 (2023)


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