By Guest Author 09/10/2020

Recently, the Science Media Centre ran the third round of its 2020 SAVVY Video Competition for science researchers. With entries ranging from kea tracking to Beethoven’s piano pieces, we judges were incredibly impressed by the creativity and quality of submissions. This week, we’re featuring the work of runner-up, PhD candidate Yen Yi Loo.

When I introduce myself as a bird biologist, a question I get asked quite a lot is ‘why birds?

Being born and raised in Malaysia, this is a valid question because in this region, we are surrounded by so much biodiversity that we are sometimes oblivious to it, perhaps until it’s gone. In fact, biological studies in Malaysia are either tightly linked to conservation or medicine. However, my passion lies in using fundamental biology to answer evolutionary questions.

I know it sounds silly now, but when I first started watching birds, what surprised me the most was that some birders could accurately identify bird species just by ear. The more I listened to birds, the more I learned about their amazingly complex songs. This brings me to my research: when and how did vocal learning begin? That’s what brought me to the Land of the Long White Cloud, Aotearoa – New Zealand.



Kia ora! My name is Yen Yi Loo. I’m a doctoral candidate in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland. My PhD research is part of a bigger project in Kristal Cain’s Lab to figure out whether the most basal Passerines, the New Zealand wrens, show patterns of a vocal learner. 

Vocal learning is a rare trait shared only between these groups of animals: elephants, bats, humans, pinnipeds, cetaceans, and three groups of birds, the parrots, oscine songbirds, and hummingbirds. These groups evolved vocal learning independently and for different reasons. However, the avian phylogeny recently underwent a major reshuffle following the advancement of genetic studies, challenging many of our assumptions regarding the evolution of certain traits. One of the most interesting is the evolution of vocal learning. This shift in the phylogeny closed the gap between parrots and songbirds, with only one small group of birds separating them, the New Zealand wrens.

There are two extant species in the New Zealand wrens family, the tītipounamu (rifleman, Acanthisitta chloris) and the pīwauwau (rock wren, Xenicus gilviventris), and they are both endemic birds in New Zealand. Although they do not have complex songs, these birds are the evolutionary missing link between parrots and songbirds, both of which are prolific vocal learners. If the NZ wrens are vocal learners, then vocal learning may have already appeared in the common ancestor of parrots and songbirds!

“Rifleman (Titipounamu)” by vil.sandi is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Because the NZ wrens are considered taonga (treasure) in New Zealand, testing if their vocal learning ability is not as straightforward as bringing them to the lab and experimenting with the various aspects of their vocalizations. So we are using several indirect approaches to understand their vocal behaviours by investigating their vocal development, individual signatures, call functions, and vocal similarity. Currently, we focus on one of the two species, the tītipounamu (which translates to ‘squeaky jade’).

One of my projects is to see whether tītipounamu can alter their voice in adulthood. To do that, we followed a banded population across years and recorded their vocalizations. If these change over time, then it means they are somehow capable of adjusting their voice. The challenging thing about studying them is that they are very tiny (5-9g), in fact, they are the tiniest of NZ birds! They also move very fast in the forest while they forage for insects from tree to tree. Their voice is also very high pitched (~6-12 kiloHertz) and quiet, usually drowned out by the loud tūī, toutouwai, and korimako. These behaviours make them very elusive and hard to follow.

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a video editing workshop by the Science Media Centre. Here, I learned how to create short, catchy stories about my research using a smartphone. There were also many tips and tricks to create top quality narratives and visuals for the video. I’m genuinely surprised by how accessible and straight-forward video-editing has become nowadays. Becoming a journalist has never been easier and cheaper! It allows me to share my work with fellow scientists and the public in a format that is digestible and engaging, while showing a glimpse of what it’s like to be an early career researcher working in this amazing landscape with the world’s most ancient songbird. I urge everyone to make use of your smartphone to share your research widely!

Lastly, I would like to commend the workshop speaker Baz Caitcheon and organizer Daniel Walker, from the Science Media Centre, for packing together such amazing content for this workshop and running it successfully through Zoom! 

Watch Yen’s prize-winning video entry here.

Featured photo: jacqui-nz (CC BY-NC)