Melatonin affects the temporal pattern of vocal signatures in birds


Address reprint requests to Sébastien Derégnaucourt, Laboratoire d’Éthologie et Cognition Comparées, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, 200 avenue de la République, F92001 Nanterre Cedex, France. E-mail:


Abstract:  In humans and other animals, melatonin is involved in the control of circadian biological rhythms. Here, we show that melatonin affects the temporal pattern of behavioral sequences in a noncircadian manner. The zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) song and the crow of the Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) are courtship vocalizations composed of a stereotyped sequence of syllables. The zebra finch song is learned from conspecifics during infancy, whereas the Japanese quail crow develops normally without auditory input. We recorded and analyzed the complete vocal activity of adult birds of both species kept in social isolation for several weeks. In both species, we observed a shortening of signal duration following the transfer from a light–dark (LD) cycle to constant light (LL), a condition known to abolish melatonin production and to disrupt circadian rhythmicity. This effect was reversible because signal duration increased when the photoperiod was returned to the previous LD schedule. We then tested whether this effect was directly related to melatonin by removal of the pineal gland, which is the main production site of circulating melatonin. A shortening of the song duration was observed following pinealectomy in LD. Likewise, melatonin treatment induced changes in the temporal structure of the song. In a song learning experiment, young pinealectomized finches and young finches raised in LL failed to copy the temporal pattern of their tutor’s song. Taken together, these results suggest that melatonin is involved in the control of motor timing of noncircadian behavioral sequences through an evolutionary conserved neuroendocrine pathway.