Jonathan Prather – Songbird Communication

Esther Seville

Jonathan Prather

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Jonathan Prather is an assistant professor for the Department of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming. He grew up in Georgia, and is most recently from North Carolina. He moved to Wyoming in July of 2009.

To describe his research in simple terms, he is studying the neuro-basis of communication. The way he does this is he studies songbirds. Songbirds are interesting because they learn to communicate by learning and vocalizations that are very similar to how humans do it. The ability to learn your vocalizations is pretty rare across animals. For example, your dog can learn the word sit, but he can’t turn around and produce that same vocalization back to you again. Learning to imitate like that is very rare, but we do it and we acquire the sounds that we use, and birds do this in a way that is strikingly similar to the way we do it. We hear mom, dad, and other members of our species and how they communicate, and we copy them very well and precisely. Turns out that birds do the same thing, and they copy just as well, all the way down to regional dialects and accents just like humans. So he began by asking how exactly the brain does that. He studied male songbirds because they are the ones that learn to sing, and he is interested in how the brain allows you to learn through imitation. He studies female songbirds because they don’t actually sing, but they are the ones who chose their mate based on the quality of song. So in short, Prather is interested in how the brain assigns value to a sensory experience.

He became interested in this topic of study because of a multitude of things. He was originally a physics major, and he wanted to know more about how things worked. “I became aware that what a lot of physisists do involves very small particles, things you can’t see,” he explained, “I just wanted to apply my physics knowledge to understanding how things worked, and then I became interested in neuroscience. As an undergrad I did research in the lab, and I got my degree in neuroscience. Eventually I began studying the neuro-basis of how birds communicate.”

I also asked Prather what he thought the most important things was that he had found in his research, because I thought this would be an important aspect to know. What he told me was very interesting. They had discovered a class of cells. One is active when the bird sings a specific vocalization, and the same cell hears that same vocalization. The question has been, how do you link up this inbound sensory experience with the outbound motor performance to enable imitation? We still don’t know the answer to this, but one really attractive idea is that these cells are the place where sensory activity and motor activity are localized in one of the same cell. Through that, that may facilitate imitation. He and his other researchers also discovered a neuro-basis of how the birds perceive themselves. They are interested now in taking that type of observation and extending it to female birds to see how not only they perceive this song as belonging to one male versus another, but how they decide that it is a good song.

Within the next few years, he hopes to accomplish more research involving songbirds. He wants to understand the neuro-basis of how you encode subjective value, and then understand where those cells project in the brain, so that you can take that information about valuation and then use it to initiate specific motor outcomes.