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Here at the Royce Conference of University of Alberta, three consecutive talks were from graduate students in the lab of Chris Sturdy. The first one was on 'response strategies for musical stimuli: parsing the properties of sound' and presented by Lee Vilinsky. Not really knowing much about musical notes, I didn't really understand much of what his results entailed, unfortunately. Apparently, consonants/dissonants is not a symmetrical parameter to pitch height, such that training participants on either parameter did not result in symmetrical results when the participants were tested with novel tones that differed in both parameters.
The second talk was on 'discrimination of fee-bee songs based on geography in black-capped chickadees' and presented by Allison Hahn. Like many birds, chickadee vocalizations can be divided into calls and songs. In the case of chickadees, their calls are long and their songs are short. This talk was about the comparatively simple 'fee-bee' song of chickadees. These songs show local dialects and computer-based functional analysis revealed that songs from British Columbia and from Ontario can be distinguished with an average of 80% acuity (up to 85%). They used operant conditioning to train lab-grown chickadees to distinguish between these two dialects, in order to see if the birds can detect the differences in the different dialects. It took the birds about 400 trials to start to discriminate the two dialects and after 1000 trials they were able to distinguish the two dialect with over 80%.
Th third and final talk was about 'To (Chick-a-)Dee, or not to Dee? That is the question'. This talk was by Chris himself and he talked about immediate-early gene expression in auditory forebrain areas of chickadees and whether or not this expression varies with phylogenetic distance. What he found that there was lots of ieg expression in auditory centers if the birds heard chickadee songs from different chickadee species and not so much if the song was not a chickadee song. This finding help across different parts of auditory forebrain and non-chickadee song didn't increase ieg expression over silence. In a more refined experiment with only portions of songs from more or less related songbird species slected to sound similar to a chickadee 'dee' syllable, all yielded increased ieg expression, suggesting that similar songs elicit similar gene expression irrespective of phylogenetic relatedness. Expression of these genes is thought to reflect recent activity in the neurons where this expression can be found and thus these results imply that these regions are involved in differentiating between different songs.
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