Social group signatures in hummingbird displays provide evidence of co-occurrence of vocal and visual learning
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Vocal learning, in which animals modify their vocalizations based on social experience, has evolved in several lineages of mammals and birds, including humans. Despite much attention, the question of how this key cognitive trait has evolved remains unanswered. The motor theory for the origin of vocal learning posits that neural centres specialized for vocal learning arose from adjacent areas in the brain devoted to general motor learning. One prediction of this hypothesis is that visual displays that rely on complex motor patterns may also be learned in taxa with vocal learning. While learning of both spoken and gestural languages is well documented in humans, the occurrence of learned visual displays has rarely been examined in non-human animals. We tested for geographical variation consistent with learning of visual displays in long-billed hermits (Phaethornis longirostris), a lek-mating hummingbird that, like humans, has both learned vocalizations and elaborate visual displays. We found lek-level signatures in both vocal parameters and visual display features, including display element proportions, sequence syntax and fine-scale parameters of elements. This variation was not associated with genetic differentiation between leks. In the absence of genetic differences, geographical variation in vocal signals at small scales is most parsimoniously attributed to learning, suggesting a significant role of social learning in visual display ontogeny. The co-occurrence of learning in vocal and visual displays would be consistent with a parallel evolution of these two signal modalities in this species. © 2019 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.
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