08 August 2012
Tenth International Congress for Neuroethology, Day 3
Today proved yet again that Ron Hoy’s “core four” (or “evil four”) is the stickiest sound bite of this conference. (Walter Heiligenberg’s advice, “Use the champion animal” is a close second, though.) There was only one featured talk today, by Constance Scharff. Her talk, on bird song learning, was a pitch to have songbirds “join the club” to turn the “evil four” into the “evil five.”
Scharff describe songbirds as the “champion” vocal learners. Not many animals learn by imitation of other animals, and even fewer learn vocalizations. One of my favourite moments of today was Scharff playing a recording of a German folk song... sung by a bullfinch. Obviously, this is not a normal thing for a bullfinch to do, and it must have learned how to sing that particular song by listening to humans.
In humans, there has been a lot of interest in a gene called FoxP2, because it has been specifically linked to speech impairment in humans. Inevitably, some people suggested that mutations in this one gene are an important aspect of what gives humans our highly elaborate vocal system - language.
Wile I am loath to simplify a complex story, since I complained about just that in the last paragraph, there are some indications that FoxP2 is needed for normal song learning. Using RNA interference and a variety of other techniques, they were able to knock down FoxP2 expression in songbirds. Songbirds treated this way were not able to learn anywhere near as well as the untreated controls.
There were three concurrent sessions after this. I went to one on navigation, which featured research on birds (relating magnetic sense to polarized vision), fish, bats (both about navigating in 3-D space) and bees (how they “stick the landing”). If you check the #icn12 hash tag on Twitter, you’ll also find tweets on a session of nervous systems coping with lack of oxygen. If any reader was at the motor program symposium, I'd love to hear some comments!
The business meeting had several awards, news, and choices for the congress in 2016. Without a doubt, however, the emotional highlight was a retrospective of the late Bob Capranica, a pioneer of amphibian neuroethology and, in later years, big supporter and booster of the field. He created and administered a prize for young neuroethologists out of his own pocket. Recently, the Neuroethology society took over management of the prize, and it now bears Capranica's name. Bob Diego earlier in the year, but Pat Capranica was there to receive an award for the work that she and her husband Bob had done in promoting neuroethology. She received a standing ovation.