Miscellaneous Research Projects

Even with a diversity of primary research projects, there are still many research interests which don’t fit into any of the other categories. So, here are some brief descriptions of additional efforts.

Novel Origin of Song Learning in Suboscine Passerine Birds

Song learning was previously known from three clades of birds– oscine passerines (song birds), parrots and hummingbirds. In collaboration with Don Kroodsma, Deb Hamilton, and George Powell, we have applied population genetic methods to test the hypothesis that one species of suboscine passerine– the Three-watttled Bellbird Procnias tricarunculata– has independently evolved social song learning. The results show that breeding population of P. tricarunculata that have very diverse songs are not genetically distinct, strongly supporting the conclusion that song variation is socially determined. This constitutes the fourth origin of song learning in birds, and only the seventh amongst all animals.


Saranathan, V., Hamilton, D., Powell, G., Kroodsma, D., and Prum, R. O. 2007. Genetic evidence supports song learning in the Three-wattled Bellbird Procnias tricarunculata (Cotingidae). Molecular Ecology 16: 3689-3702.

Suboscine Syringeal Morphology

The syrinx, or vocal organ, of suboscine passerines is extremely diverse in morphology. Having described the syringeal morphology of manakins (Pipridae) and broadbills (Eurylaimidae), and having nearly completed description of the syringes of Cotingas (Cotingidae), I am interested in a monograph on the syringeal morphology of the entire suboscine bird clade.

Syringeal Complexity and Vocal Complexity

The suboscine birds are distinct from the oscine passerines (or songbirds) in lacking extensive song learning capability. Consequently, their syringeal diversity provides a great opportunity to investigate the relationship between syringeal structure and vocal complexity. Within the suboscines, there are multiple independent origins of intrinsic syringeal musculature, fused tracheal drums, and many other morphologies. Comparative analyses of structural diversity and vocal complexity (e.g. rapidity of vocal modulations) could document for the first time how selection on vocal features contributes to morphological diversification in birds.

Syringeal Complexity and Neural Complexity

The syringes of suboscine birds vary tremendously in the complexity of musculature, but almost nothing is known about the complexity of the neural system that is required to drive that diversity of muscles. Do more complex syringes with 1-3 pairs of intrinsic muscles also require derived neural circuits to drive them? I am interested in exploring the diversity of suboscine syringeal muscles, vocalizations, and brain organization to test these hypotheses.

Clique or Compatibility Analysis in Historical Biogeography

Component analysis, Brooks Parsimony analysis, and other methods provide different options in reconstruction of vicariance. But these methods can lead to errors when data reflecting alternative biotic histories are combined. Because biota do not have singular histories as organismal phylogenies do, phylogenetic techniques are not appropriate for historical biogeographic reconstruction of areas with complex histories. An alternative method is clique or compatibility analysis. We are a compatibility analysis based on the ranges of Neotropical lowland forest birds to test the efficacy of these methods.