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How Did Birds Evolve the Capacity to Vocalize?

Wednesday, February 23, 2022 - 3:00pm to 4:00pm


Cliff Tabin, Ph.D.
George Jacob and Jacqueline Hazel Leder Professor of Genetics
Chair, Department of Genetics
Harvard Medical School

The Tabin Laboratory studies the genetic basis by which form and structure are regulated, both during embryonic development to produce the exquisite morphology of the vertebrate embryo and over evolutionary time to generate the extraordinary and beautiful diversity of animal forms on this planet. In our developmental studies we combine classical methods of experimental embryology with modern molecular, imaging, genetic and genomic techniques for interrogating and testing gene function. In our evolutionary work we have addressed question of morphological, behavioral and metabolic evolution in a variety of species using both developmental and genetic approaches.


Birds "sing" using a unique vocal organ called the syrinx. It is an example of the evolution of a novel structure. We have explored the genetic pathways underlying the embryonic formation of the syrinx to understand its morphogenesis and to understand how this adaptation arose.


  • A temporal and spatial gradient of Shh activity drives formation of parallel cartilage rings in the trachea
  • Altered timing of Shh expression allows the formation of the specialized cartilage of the syrinx
  • A vocal fold program was coopted from the larynx in the evolution of vibratory tissue in the syrinx

The page was last updated on Thursday, February 17, 2022 - 3:07pm