NIH Funding Helps Professor Investigate Muscle Structures in Songbirds

OGDEN, Utah – Weber State University zoology professor Ron Meyers has received funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the muscles associated with singing in birds.

This is the first time a WSU professor has received an NIH grant. Meyers' research is one component of a larger study NIH is funding on the physiology of songbirds, under the direction of University of Utah professor Franz Goller. WSU's portion of the grant, totaling $245,000 over five years, will fund student researchers and pay for equipment needed to conduct the research. The overall project is funded by the NIH division for Motor Functions, Speech and Rehabilitation in the hope that learning more about how birds develop singing and vocalization may lead to new strategies for helping deaf people learn to speak.

Meyers and his student team will focus on the anatomical aspects of songbirds, specifically the muscles that make up the syrinx – the vocal organ of birds, located at the base of the trachea.

Physiological data collected on songbirds indicates these muscles can contract about 90 times per second, suggesting the presence of superfast muscles, which only a few animals are known to have. The rattlesnake's tail shaker muscle may be the best example of a superfast muscle that scientists have identified.

Using histology and histochemistry analysis, Meyers hopes to determine the types of muscle fibers present (superfast, fast or slow), quantify sizes of each, and learn how the presence of different types of muscle relates to the bird's ability to sing.

Preliminary data indicate two different fibers in syringeal muscles. "We hope to explore why two different muscle fiber populations exist," said Meyers. "Do they work in tandem or are they used independently for different uses?"

The research will be funded for five years. Initially, Meyers will be working with syrinx samples from starlings, but he plans to analyze a wide variety of different songbirds through the duration of the grant.

"Only the males sing in some species," said Meyers. "In other species, the females sing but not as much as males." Meyers plans to see how the muscles vary between the genders and examine whether that plays a role in male songbirds being more vocal.

The year round collection of data will also allow the researchers to compare and contrast muscles in breeding season versus fall and winter when birds sing less or not at all.

"Is there a seasonal change in muscle size during certain times of the year?" Meyers asked.

While hoping to answer some of these questions, Meyers concedes that it's hard to predict where the research will lead in four to five years.

"We have an idea of where we want to go, but the way science works, we may uncover new questions for every question we answer."

Ron Meyers, zoology professor
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John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
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