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Engineering birdsongs

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Engineering birdsongs

Researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a simple device that mimics complex birdsongs. The device, developed by the group of Wyss Core Faculty member L. Mahadevan, Ph.D., uses air blown through a stretched rubber tube to recreate birdsongs found in nature, including the songs of Zebra and Bengalese finches. To hear the birdsongs and learn more about the research, listen to this episode of the Science@SEAS podcast. Scroll down for a transcript of the episode.


Ah, the sounds of nature. Water running, bird singing, trees rustling. But what if I told you one of those sounds wasn’t real.

Those birdsongs are actually coming from a simple rubber tube.

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have recreated complex bird songs using simple soft materials and some mathematical modeling.

Listen to the song of a vireo.

Now, listen to the same song, recreated in a lab.

Here is a real Bengalese Finch.

And here is the copy.

In nature, birds perform these complex vocalizations with a specialized organ called a syrinx — which comes from the Greek word for pan pipes. Muscles surrounding the syrinx control the vibrations as air moves through the vocal tract.

For years, researchers believed that birds had to learn complicated neurological controls to produce songs, like this zebra finch call:

This new research challenges that idea.

Led by Professor L. Mahadevan, the researchers broke down the complex, vocal gymnastics performed by birds into a set of simple biomechanical and control tasks. They found that the inherent complexity in birdsong might actually be the result of a simple controllable instability in the structure of the syrinx.

The researchers built an artificial syrinx out of a rubber tube and, with the help of an equation that optimizes birdsong mimicry, recreated songs from various species.

Listen to their recreation of that zebra finch song.

The research suggests that by harnessing the physical properties of a soft materials — specifically its instabilities — developing organisms may have found a way a simpler way to create complex behavior.

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