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Sexual dimorphism and bilateral asymmetry of syrinx and vocal tract in the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris)



Sexually dimorphic vocal behavior in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) is associated with a 100% larger syrinx in males and other morphological adaptations of the sound source. The songbird syrinx consists of two independent sound sources, whose specialization for different spectral ranges may be reflected in morphological properties, but the morphology of labia and syringeal skeleton have not been investigated for lateralized specializations. Similarly, little is known whether the morphology of the songbird vocal tract reflects differences in vocal behavior. Here, we tested the hypothesis that different vocal behavior and specialization is reflected in the morphology. We investigated syringeal and upper vocal tract morphology of male and female European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Female starlings exhibit smaller vocal repertoires and sing at lower rates than males. In males, the left syrinx produces mostly low frequencies, while the right one is used for higher notes. Macroscopic and histological techniques were used to record nineteen measurements from the syrinx and the vocal tract which were tested for sexual differences in syrinx and vocal tract and for lateral asymmetry within the syrinx. Sexually dimorphic vocal behavior is reflected in the morphology of the starling syrinx. Males have a larger syrinx with the size difference attributable to increased muscle mass and three enlarged elements of the syringeal skeleton. The upper vocal tract, however, does not differ between males and females. Distinct lateralization was found in two elements of the syringeal skeleton of females, and the labia in the left syrinx are larger than those on the right in both sexes. The sexual dimorphism of the syringeal size is smaller in starlings (35%) than in zebra finches (100%), which is consistent with the different vocal behavior of females in both species. The morphological differences between the two sound sources are discussed in relation to their vocal performance. J. Morphol., 2011. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.