Cerebral Hemispheres 2


The Singing Bass: Kitschy or Insightful?

If you were listening in on a discussion about the evolutionary origins of language, you might expect to hear theories bandied about concerning evidence for language-like processes in apes. You probably wouldn’t be too shocked to hear someone bring up an example of language in parrots. You might, however, be a little surprised if the conversation turned to the origins of human vocalization in toadfish.

Perhaps this isn’t that surprising, though, when one considers how much of our evolutionary beginnings are shared with fishes. While (of course) fish don’t have language in a human sense, some species do have the ability to make vocalizations in certain situations, like courtship or defense of territory. Although they lack an air tube leading to the mouth, and a larynx to create the vibrational variations more common to land animal utterances, some are able to make noises with an air sac used primarily for buoyancy control and secondary respiration, known as the gas bladder. Fish of the batrachoidid family in particular (i.e. the midshipman and toadfish) have a diverse group of vocalizations. They vary depending on the context, with specific calls for aggression, surprise, or mating (among others).

This leads to a couple of different hypotheses. One is that the ability to vocalize evolved independently a number of times throughout history: in fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Another is that there is a common origin for the ability to vocalize that can be traced back millions of years to a piscine ancestor. A study published in this week’s Science explores the latter hypothesis by investigating the development of the neural circuitry for vocalization in larval fish.

Studying embryos or larvae is a method used in evolutionary developmental biology. Similarities in the embryonic development of two organisms are considered evidence of a common ancestor. This conclusion is based on the fact that evolution works by the alteration of existing structures. Thus, two related organisms will theoretically have similar embryonic development to a certain point, where it will then diverge in order to form the structures that make the two creatures taxonomically different. A commonly given example of this is the vestigial pharyngeal pouches (gill slits) that human embryos possess early in development.

The authors of the study in Science found that the vocal motor neurons in batrachoidid fish develop in a segmental region that spans the caudal hindbrain and rostral spinal cord. This is similar to the pattern of development found in other vertebrates like frogs and birds. Adult phenotypes seem to indicate a comparable developmental process in reptiles and mammals as well, although embryological studies here are lacking.

The authors conclude that these analogies in the distribution of vocal neurons indicate a conserved developmental pathway that involves Hox gene expression. They suggest this pathway predates the radiation of fish, originating over 400 million years ago. Thus, perhaps the Big Mouth Billy Bass is a more astutely-developed toy than it first appears to be…no, it’s still stupid.


Bass, A.H., Gilland, E.H., Baker, R. (2008). Evolutionary Origins for Social Vocalization in a Vertebrate Hindbrain-Spinal Compartment. Science, 321 (5887), 417-421. DOI:10.1126/science.1157632


Sleep. Memory. Pleasure. Fear. Language. We experience these things every day, but how do our brains create them? Your Brain, Explained is a personal tour around your gray matter. Building on neuroscientist Marc Dingman’s popular YouTube series, 2-Minute Neuroscience, this is a friendly, engaging introduction to the human brain and its quirks using real-life examples and Dingman’s own, hand-drawn illustrations.

  • Dingman weaves classic studies with modern research into easily digestible sections, to provide an excellent primer on the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience. - Moheb Costandi, author, Neuroplasticity and 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know

  • ...a highly readable and accessible introduction to the operation of the brain and current issues in neuroscience... a wonderful introduction to the field. - Frank Amthor, PhD, Professor of Psychology, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, author, Neuroscience for Dummies

  • Reading like a collection of detective stories, Your Brain, Explained combines classic cases in the history of neurology with findings stemming from the latest techniques used to probe the brain’s secrets. - Stanley Finger, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Washington University (St. Louis), author, Origins of Neuroscience

  • An informative, accessible and engaging book for anyone who has even the slightest interest in how the brain works, but doesn’t know where to begin. - Dean Burnett, PhD, author, Happy Brain and Idiot Brain


This book shows a whole other side of how brains work by examining the most unusual behavior to emerge from the human brain. In it, you'll meet a woman who is afraid to take a shower because she fears her body will slip down the drain, a man who is convinced he is a cat, a woman who compulsively snacks on cigarette ashes, and many other unusual cases. As uncommon as they are, each of these cases has something important to teach us about everyday brain function.

  • Dingman brings the history of neuroscience back to life and weaves in contemporary ideas seamlessly. Readers will come along for the ride of a really interesting read and accidentally learn some neuroscience along the way. - Erin Kirschmann, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology & Counseling, Immaculata University

  • Bizarre is a collection of stories of how the brain can create zombies, cult members, extra limbs, instant musicians, and overnight accents, to name a few of the mind-scratching cases. After reading this book, you will walk away with a greater appreciation for this bizarre organ. If you are a fan of Oliver Sacks' books, you're certain to be a fan of Dingman's Bizarre. - Allison M. Wilck, PhD, Researcher and Assistant Professor of Psychology, Eastern Mennonite University

  • Through case studies of both exceptional people as well as those with disorders, Bizarre takes us on a fascinating journey in which we learn more about what is going on in our skull. - William J. Ray, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, author, Abnormal Psychology

  • A unique combination of storytelling and scientific explanation that appeals to the brain novice, the trained neuroscientist, and everyone in between. Dingman explores some of the most fascinating and mysterious expressions of human behavior in a style that is case study, dramatic novel, and introductory textbook all rolled into one. - Alison Kreisler, PhD, Neuroscience Instructor, California State University, San Marcos