From a fish that hums to Pavarotti

27 July 2008


If you like to warble in the shower or in the bath then you probably don't realise that you are in fact taking a step closer to the origins of your singing talent, namely fish.Harry Belafonte Singing

That's according to a team of neuroscientists from Cornell University in the States led by Andrew Bass, who have discovered that vertebrate brains may have been wired up for making sounds for a very long time: hundreds of millions of years ago, in fact, since a time before vertebrates hauled themselves out onto dry land.

The team studied the brain development of a type of fish that lives on the seabed along the Pacific Coast of North America called the midshipman or - I think rather wonderfully - the humming toadfish. Male humming toadfish spend long hours humming happily away, serenading females and trying to tempt them to lay their eggs.

They injected fluorescent dyes into the growing brain cells of toadfish larvae and watched under microscopes as clusters of cells formed connections and eventually grew into networks that control the fish's vocalisation.

By looking at the equivalent brain the team discovered remarkable similarity with the neural circuits controlling sound-making in amphibians, birds and mammals. This bolsters the idea- first put forward by Charles Darwin - that the ability to make and control sounds first evolved a very long time ago in the ancient ancestors of all modern day vertebrates when they were still swimming around the sea.


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