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Human Frontier Science Program award for Katharina Riebel

An international research team consisting of Katharina Riebel as leading PI and two international collaborators were awarded a Human Frontier Science Program grant for their proposal ‘Seeing voices’: the role of multimodal cues in vocal learning.

Multimodal communication

Multimodal communication is ubiquitous in biology: plants lure pollinators with colour and fragrance, animals court with visual displays and sounds, and humans talk and gesture. Yet, while the human literature has long recognised that multimodal communication requires intersensory integration, this issue has received less attention in biology. As many animal signalling systems are modifiable by experience or wholly learned, experience-dependent changes of multimodal communication may be pre-linguistic, general features of human and non-human animal communication.

Vocal learners and visual cues

Humans and songbirds are both vocal learners that can copy their communication signals from other individuals. Sound is essential for the development of vocal communication but visual cues, such as moving lips in speech, or moving beaks in birdsong also play an important role. Young songbirds are thought to learn song better when using sound and sight than when only sound is available.

But why is this so? Does simultaneous hearing and seeing improve learning because beak movements are learned together with the sound of song? Or is simply seeing a social companion improving a bird's learning performance? And how is the brain integrating multimodal information during development? To investigate these questions the team aims to develop a robot that can teach young birds to sing.

Robot tutor

A robot tutor provides full control over visual and acoustic cues and allows searching for neuro-molecular correlates for auditory-visual song integration in candidate neural networks. Songbirds, and zebra finches in particular, are the prevalent animal model for molecular, neural and developmental aspects of human speech. Human and songbird brains exhibit for example important functional brain circuits and findings in either system often can inform research in the other.

The team

The project combines the expertise and infrastructures of three laboratories with signature research approaches. The PI, Behavioural Biologist Katharina Riebel, Leiden University, has long standing experience of in depth experimental studies of avian vocal learning and operant paradigms developed in Leiden, that function as ‘avian questionnaires’.

Dr. Wouter Halfwerk, VU Amsterdam/ Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama is a Sensory Ecologist who studies multimodal signalling and the evolution of communication signals using robotics.

The work will receive a neurobiological complement provided by Prof. Constance Scharff, FU Berlin.

All three parties share a passionate research interest in the development and evolution of communication systems and have long felt that single discipline approaches cannot captivate the complexity of these systems. All three are eager to embark on this new synergistic research line optimally combining expertise and infrastructure of three laboratories to answer long-standing questions in communication research.

Human Frontier Science Program

The Human Frontier Science Program funds cutting edge innovative research in the life sciences, promoting international collaboration in the spirit of science without borders. 34 million USD were awarded to the 32 winning teams. Applicants went through a rigorous year- long selection process in a global competition that started with 871 submitted letters of intent involving scientists in 64 different countries around the world. This year 7 Young Investigator Grants and 25 Program Grants were awarded. Each team receives on average 330,000 -375,000 USD per year for three years.

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