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Timing during transitions in Bengalese finch song: implications for motor sequencing


To investigate mechanisms of action sequencing, we examined the relationship between timing and sequencing of syllables in Bengalese finch song. An individual's song comprises acoustically distinct syllables organized into probabilistic sequences: a given syllable potentially can transition to several different syllables (divergence points), and several different syllables can transition to a given syllable (convergence points). In agreement with previous studies, we found that more probable transitions at divergence points occur with shorter intersyllable gaps. One intuition for this relationship is that selection between syllables reflects a competitive branching process, in which stronger links to one syllable lead to both higher probabilities and shorter latencies for transitions to that syllable vs. competing alternatives. However, we found that simulations of competitive race models result in overlapping winning-time distributions for competing outcomes and fail to replicate the strong negative correlation between probability and gap duration found in song data. Further investigation of song structure revealed strong positive correlation between gap durations for transitions that share a common convergent point. Such transitions are not related by a common competitive process, but instead reflect a common terminal syllable. In contrast to gap durations, transition probabilities were not correlated at convergence points. Together, our data suggest that syllable selection happens early during the gap, with gap timing determined chiefly by the latency to syllable initiation. This may result from a process in which probabilistic sequencing is first stabilized, followed by a shortening of the latency to syllables that are sung more often.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Bengalese finch songs consist of probabilistic sequences of syllables. Previous studies revealed a strong negative correlation between transition probability and the duration of intersyllable gaps. We show here that the negative correlation is inconsistent with previous suggestions that timing at syllable transitions is governed by a race between competing alternatives. Rather, the data suggest that syllable selection happens early during the gap, with gap timing determined chiefly by the latency to syllable initiation.

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