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Daily singing workout keeps male songbirds attractive

Singing is a complex activity that involves the coordination of hundreds of muscles and requires rigorous practice. 

While athletes extensively train their limb and body muscles, the training of vocal muscles, especially in humans, remains a lesser-known domain.

Vocal muscle training

Professor Coen Elemans from the University of Southern Denmark, a sound production expert, pointed out a significant knowledge gap regarding the training of vocal muscles in humans. 

“Surprisingly we know very little about the effects of exercise on these muscles and if they even react to training in humans,” said Professor Elemans. “No singer will let you come even near their precious voice box.”

In collaboration with Professor Iris Adam and colleagues, Professor Elemans led a study which reveals that male songbirds must sing daily to maintain their vocal muscles and produce attractive songs.

Necessity of vocal exercise

“Singing is crucial for songbirds. They sing to impress future partners, to defend their territories and to maintain social bonds,” said Professor Adam, lead author of the study.

“It has long been known that songbird singing is controlled by fast vocal muscles, but until now we only had very little knowledge if and how these muscles might respond to exercise, like our leg muscles do.”

The researchers discovered that these muscles weaken significantly within days if not used, losing 50% of their strength in a week without singing. 

“This was very surprising,” said Professor Adam. “First that these muscles reacted so strongly, but also how incredibly fast they lost performance. Indeed, it’s use it or lose it!”

Discernible differences 

The research team found noticeable differences in the songs of birds before and after exercise. Although these differences might be subtle to human ears, female zebra finches could discern them.

“The female zebra finches in the playback experiment could directly hear the difference and 75 percent preferred the songs from the well exercised male,” explained study co-author Katharina Riebel.

Maintaining vocal attractiveness 

Professor Elemans suggests that this requirement for daily exercise might explain the pervasive dawn chorus of birds worldwide. The study suggests that birds may need to sing daily not just for communication or territorial reasons but to maintain vocal attractiveness.

“A lot of that singing seems out of context. They sing when they don’t need to,” noted Professor Adam.

“Our results now show that if they don’t exercise every day, their muscle performance decreases,” said Professor Elemans. “On top of that, the lack of exercise is audible in their song and the females prefer song from exercised males.”

Reversed muscle training 

Another intriguing finding by the research team pertains to the nature of vocal muscle training in songbirds. Unlike human limb muscles that get slower but stronger with exercise, songbird vocal muscles behave in the opposite way. 

“This reversed training may be a unique feature for vocal muscles, that we think might be true for all vertebrates, including humans, because all vocal muscles are developmentally related,” said Professor Adam.

Study implications 

According to Professor Elemans, these findings could revolutionize our approach to human vocal training and speech therapy. Currently, human larynx muscle training is modeled after limb muscle exercise, which may not be the most effective approach. 

“Songbirds may be our best allies to study the physiology of vocal muscle to further improve voice training and rehabilitation in humans,” said Professor Elemans.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications

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