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Colorful Parrot
Photo by Kaitlin Dowis on Unsplash

Can genes predict which birds can learn to talk?

A recent study disappointed researchers, who really hoped to learn why humans use language
Turquoise-fronted amazon (Amazona aestiva) older adult.JPG

Turquoise-fronted Amazon parrot/Charles J. Sharp (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A group of scientists from American and Brazilian universities tried to answer two questions about parrots that could help us understand other life forms as well: Why do parrots find it so easy to learn to talk and why do they live so long?

Parrots do live longer than other similar-sized birds (one captive parrot lived to be a documented 66 years). By comparing the genome of a blue-fronted Amazon parrot named Moises with that of 30 other long- and short-lived birds — including four additional parrot species, they got some clues.

They found genes identified with longevity, mainly genes responsible for the repair of telomeres (the ends of chromosomes), which tend to shorten with age. They also found some novel (de novo) genes, present only in parrots, near the genes associated with neural development that are linked with cognitive abilities, in humans. Interesting but not very conclusive:

“Unfortunately, we didn’t find as many speech-related changes as I had hoped,” said Wirthlin, whose research is focused on the evolution of vocal behaviors, including speech. Animals that learn songs or speech are relatively rare— parrots, hummingbirds, songbirds, whales, dolphins, seals and bats—which makes them particularly interesting to scientists, such as Wirthlin, who hope to gain a better understanding of how humans evolved this capacity.
Parrot genome analysis reveals insights into longevity, cognition” at ScienceDaily

It’s not always clear what specific capacity the researchers are trying to study: the ability to vocalize words or the ability to understand them? One of them told a popular science magazine,

“It’s a surprise in the sense that these animals are so different from humans, but it’s also satisfying in that you might predict that since they evolved similar traits, they have some similar mechanisms,” says Claudio Mello at the Oregon Health & Science University. Parrots can produce complex vocalisations and they’re highly social, a lot like humans.
Chelsea Whyte, “Parrots are clever because their brains evolved the same way as ours” at New Scientist

Parrots are not “a lot like humans,” actually, and we are not discussing the use of language in a specifically human way. The parrot has the ability to mimic human sounds just as it might mimic the sounds of other birds in the wild.

That the parrot doesn’t understand what it is squawking may be inferred from the fact that older books on keeping birds warned against buying a parrot from a sailor because some of the language the bird learned on the ship and innocently repeated might not prove socially acceptable. President Andrew Jackson’s parrot, Poll, it is said, swore like a sailor at his funeral.

The researchers identify the similarity between human and parrot neural gene regulators as convergent evolution. That is not the type of evolution taught, controversially, in public schools (Darwinian evolution). Convergent evolution means that two life forms show similarities that are not derived from a common ancestor. The traits have a similar goal though not a common origin.

However, a popular science magazine puts the matter in a way destined to confuse:

They found that regions of the parrot genome that regulate when and how genes for brain development are turned on are the same as those found in humans. These so-called ultra-conserved elements evolved in both species at different times, but with similar results.
Chelsea Whyte, “Parrots are clever because their brains evolved the same way as ours” at New Scientist

Actually, the find does not show that parrots’ brains “evolved the same way as ours,” as the title of the New Scientist article says. It shows that parrots have some unique, parrot-specific genes, whose origin is currently unknown, genes that may help them learn to mimic human language sounds as well as bird calls.

Ultimately, the researchers say, research must focus on gene regulation rather than genes themselves because speech is thought to be more a function of gene regulation than of genes. But the techniques for comparison must first be developed.

In the end, the study did not tell us why humans can talk but it did tell us something intriguing: Parrots’ ability to squawk “Wheeler! What are you doing?!” stems from unique genes whose origin is unknown.

See also: Crows can be as smart as apes. But they have quite different brains. The intelligence doesn’t seem to reside in the details of the mechanism


Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor: How is human language different from animal signals? What do we need from language that we cannot get from signals alone?

Can genes predict which birds can learn to talk?