A comparative study of avian auditory brainstem responses: correlations with phylogeny and vocal complexity, and seasonal effects
We conducted a comparative study of the peripheral auditory system in six avian species (downy woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, house sparrows, and European starlings). These species differ in the complexity and frequency characteristics of their vocal repertoires. Physiological measures of hearing were collected on anesthetized birds using the auditory brainstem response to broadband click stimuli. If auditory brainstem response patterns are phylogenetically conserved, we predicted woodpeckers, sparrows, and starlings to be outliers relative to the other species, because woodpeckers are in a different Order (Piciformes) and, within the Order Passeriformes, sparrows and starlings are in different Superfamilies than the nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice. However, nuthatches and woodpeckers have the simplest vocal repertoires at the lowest frequencies of these six species. If auditory brainstem responses correlate with vocal complexity, therefore, we would predict nuthatches and woodpeckers to be outliers relative to the other four species. Our results indicate that auditory brainstem responses measures in the spring broadly correlated with both vocal complexity and, in some cases, phylogeny. However, these auditory brainstem response patterns shift from spring to winter due to species-specific seasonal changes. These seasonal changes suggest plasticity at the auditory periphery in adult birds.
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