These Birds Are Singing To Their Eggs To Warn Babies Of Climate Change

These birds are evolving right before our eyes.

Credit: Graeme Chapman

For humans, tons of research has been conducted to prove that speaking to unborn babies can help them learn things early on, such as the voice of their mother and music preferences. The same has been observed in birds that hatch and are able to fend for themselves right away, but little research had been done on birds that are born dependent on their parents.

A study published in Science challenged everything we know about dependent birds, which all started when a post-doctoral researcher at Deakin and lead author Mylene Mariette listened intently to calls made to unhatched eggs from zebra finch mothers and heard something new. Curious about what this unfamiliar sound could mean, she decided to put her theory to the test and use different conditions to trigger the song. As Kate Buchanan, an associate professor of animal ecology at Deakin University in Australia and the senior author of the study, explained, 

“This acoustic signal is potentially being used to program the development of offspring. Hearing the call affects your rate of growth relative to the temperature that you experience.”

Despite numerous studies on the topic, little is known about what these calls to babies could mean, but the group behind this study has unhatched something that could lead to further discoveries. Since parents share responsibilities with incubation and typically mate for life, researches recorded the sounds of both 61 males and 61 females nesting in bird cages under natural temperatures. While adjusting temperatures, researchers heard the sound only when temperatures reached over 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

Credit: Wikiwand

The researchers then switched the real eggs with false ones in the nest and took the real eggs back to an incubation chamber to manually play different sounds to some of the unhatched babies during their last 3 to 5 days in the egg. Once the babies hatched, their growth and development was affected by what sounds they heard.

Those that were born under warmer temperatures and also heard the special sounds were smaller than those under normal temps that heard normal socialization sounds. They also showed differences in behavior and growth throughout their adult life, with those “warned” of climate change often choosing hotter nests, all of which may give the birds an advantage in the changing world and evidence of evolution at work.

Credit: Singing Wings Aviary

“Animals have very subtle ways of inferring how the environment is likely to change, and (being able) to develop and adapt accordingly,” Buchanan said. “We’re only looking at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we recognize so far… Hearing that call before you even hatch affects your development, affects your growth rate, probably affects your vocalization and it affects your behavior and choice 100 or 200 days later when you go to nest yourself.”

Experts on animal behavior agree that this discovery is revolutionary and likely to open up a brand new field of research. Not only does this change what we know about birds but it has opened up questions about how other animals interact with their children before birth in order to prepare them for the changing environment. 

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