Vocal babbling in a wild parrot shows life history and endocrine affinities with human infants

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Prelinguistic babbling is a critical phase in infant language development and is best understood in temperate songbirds where it occurs primarily in males at reproductive maturity and is modulated by sex steroids. Parrots of both sexes are icons of tropical vocal plasticity, but vocal babbling is unreported in this group and whether the endocrine system is involved is unknown. Here we show that vocal babbling is widespread in a wild parrot population in Venezuela, ensues in both sexes during the nestling stage, occurs amidst a captive audience of mixed-aged siblings, and is modulated by corticosteroids. Spectrographic analysis and machine learning found phoneme diversity and combinatorial capacity increased precipitously for the first week, thereafter, crystalizing into a smaller repertoire, consistent with the selective attrition model of language development. Corticosterone-treated nestlings differed from unmanipulated birds and sham controls in several acoustic properties and crystallized a larger repertoire post-treatment. Our findings indicate babbling occurs during an early life-history stage in which corticosteroids help catalyse the transition from a universal learning programme to one finely tuned for the prevailing ecological environment, a potentially convergent scenario in human prelinguistic development.


Original published version available at https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2022.0592

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Proceedings. Biological sciences