Cooperation between CNRS and ELKH may open new perspectives for the scientific and technological relations of France and Hungary

Leaders of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELKH) signed a Memorandum of Understanding on  March 29, 2021. The purpose of the agreement is to strengthen and further develop scientific cooperation between the two institutions.

As a result of nearly a year of preparatory work, a strategically important cooperation agreement was reached between the Eötvös Loránd Research Network and the French basic research organization, CNRS. The signing of the agreement took place partly virtually and partly in person: with the participation of CNRS at the Hungarian Embassy in Paris and ELKH at the French Ambassador’s residence in Budapest. Ambassador Pascale Andréani from France and Ambassador György Habsburg from Hungary praised the agreement; the signatories were Miklós Maróth, President of ELKH and Alain Schuhl, Deputy Director General of CNRS.

Scientific representatives agreed that the signing of the agreement could open up new perspectives for scientific and technological cooperation between France and Hungary, as well as further expand the international relations of the two parties. The missions of ELKH and CNRS are almost identical: to promote the development of their respective countries through science. In order to achieve this goal and to increase the innovation capacity of the Hungarian economy, it is essential to take inspiration from other successful international models.

In his speech at the signing ceremony, Miklós Maróth, President of ELKH, emphasized that CNRS serves as one of the main points of reference in the international scientific world due to its network structure, strategic operating model, funding system, cooperation with higher education institutions and economic exploitation of research results, which can also serve as a compass in the promotion of Hungarian research and development.

Alain Schuhl praised the research and innovation relations between the two countries, which are already good, and highlighted the specific joint research topics underway with the relevant ELKH research institutes. He also expressed hope for the further broadening of research collaborations.

Directors of three research institutes belonging to Eötvös Loránd Research Network elected

The Governing Board of the Eötvös Loránd Research Network has elected the directors of the three research institutes belonging to the research network that will become independent on April 1, 2021. In making its decisions, the Governing Board considered the reports of the ad hoc committees set up to assess the applications.

Newly appointed leaders:

Veterinary Medical Research Institute (VMRI): director Tibor Magyar, formerly director

Tibor Magyar is a doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, holds a PhD in veterinary science and is head of the Respiratory Bacteriology Group. His main scientific fields include veterinary microbiology, bacteriology, epidemiology, respiratory diseases and swine health.

Balaton Limnological Research Institute (BLKI): director Tibor Erős, formerly acting director

Tibor Erős is a certified biologist, doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and head of the Fish and Conservation Ecology Research Group of the institute. His main scientific fields include fish ecology, community ecology, nature conservation biology, biological water classification, monitoring.

Institute of Earth Physics and Space Sciences (FI): director Viktor Wesztergom, formerly acting director
Viktor Wesztergom is a certified geophysicist, specialist economist with a PhD in earth sciences, habilitated doctor, and honorary lecturer. His main scientific fields include geophysics, Sun-Earth physical relations, geomagnetism and electromagnetic deep structure research.

The Centre for Energy Research participates in the construction of the Lunar Gateway space station

Mankind has decided to take another big step in the conquest and utilization of outer space. In the mid-2020s, in international collaboration, a space station will be built in orbit around the Moon, called the Gateway.

The TRITEL dosimeter, developed in the Space Research Department of the ELKH Centre for Energy Research, will be one of the components of the space station’s Internal Dosimeter Array (IDA), which has recently been approved by the European Space Agency.

The main goal is to protect astronauts

IDA will measure the dose and characteristics of ionizing radiation passing through and generated in the space station’s Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) as a function of time. Given that astronauts will be exposed to radiation on board the space station on average 250 times more a year than on the Earth’s surface, radiation dose measurement is of paramount importance for their health. Using measurement data from the European Radiation Sensors Array (ERSA) located on the external platform of the Gateway, it will be possible to examine how effectively the wall of the space station also provides protection against radiation from space.

A TRITEL dosimeter, credits: Centre for Energy Research

In addition to TRITEL being Hungary’s contribution to the space station around the Moon, ESA has invited the Centre for Energy Research (CER) to develop and breadboard the IDA central unit in the frame of direct negotiation. This will be the (interface) unit through which the detectors of the IDA system are connected to the power supply and communication system of the space station. The prototype of the IDA central unit and the TRITEL dose measurement system will be manufactured by REMRED Ltd., a space company founded by the Centre for Energy Research.

The Gateway

The Gateway will be a third-quarter the size of the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting the Earth for more than twenty years and will not be permanently inhabited, but will play an important role in future human missions landing on the surface of the Moon.

The station, however, is not a destination but a milestone on the road to the human Mars journey. The experience gained in the area around the Moon is intended to be used in future missions to Mars, thus ensuring the health and safety of astronauts.

The space station, which will weight nearly 40 tons, will orbit the Moon flying as close as 3000 km from the lunar surface and at its furthest, 70 000 km.

Gateway concept, credits: ESA

More than 40 years of experience

Hungary joined the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2015, and in 2019, at the ESA Ministerial Council, among other optional programs, joined the space agency’s Human and Robotic Exploration optional program. Hungary has more than four decades of experience in studying the radiation exposure of astronauts in space. At the Centre for Energy Research (formerly KFKI and MTA KFKI AEKI), a number of active and non-powered, so-called passive dose measurement systems were developed, with which measurements were made on board human spacecraft and satellites. Last year, it was forty years since the first Hungarian-developed dose measuring instrument, the Pille, ascended into space, with which astronaut Bertalan Farkas made measurements on board the Saljut-6 space station. As part of U.S., ESA, and Russian collaborations, various versions of the system have since reached a number of spacecraft. The latest version of the Pille, as part of the Russian segment’s service system, has been operating continuously and reliably on board the ISS since 2003. Most recently, another Pille was put into service on the ISS in June 2018. CER has also been participating in ESA’s DOSIS and DOSIS-3D dose mapping programs in the European Columbus research module with passive dosimeters since 2009, as well as in the Columbus and Russian Zvezda modules with its silicon detector dosimeter system TRITEL.

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov in the Zvezda Service Modul of ISS with the TRITEL instrument, source: NASA

Leaders of eight institutes from the Eötvös Loránd Research Network elected

With effect from March 1, 2021, the Governing Board of the Eötvös Loránd Research Network has elected the leaders of six research centers, one independent research institute and the Office for Supported Research Groups, which manages the administration of around 150 independent research groups based at universities and other public institutions. The call for applications for research site leaders was announced because the term of office of the previous heads of the institutes was due to expire.

In making its decisions, the Governing Board took into account the report of an ad-hoc committee set up to assess the applications, which also included a representative of the relevant research site.

In the case of six institutions, former heads of institutions with long-term research and extensive managerial experience were re-elected. At one institution, the former Director-General has retired, and the former Deputy Director General for Science, who also has long-term research and management experience, has been appointed Director-General. This continuity ensures the stability of the operation of research sites. In the case of the Office for Supported Research Groups, a specialist with significant managerial experience in public administration was selected to lead the office.

Newly appointed leaders:

  1. Research Centre for the Humanities (BTK): Balázs Balogh, Director General, formerly Deputy Director General
  2. Centre for Energy Research (EK): Ákos Horváth, Director General, formerly Director General
  3. Institute of Experimental Medicine (KOKI): Zoltán Nusser, Director, formerly Acting Director
  4. Research Centre for Economic and Regional Studies (KRTK): Imre Fertő, Director General, formerly Acting Director General
  5. Biological Research Centre (BRC): Ferenc Nagy, Director General, formerly Director General
  6. Research Centre for Natural Sciences (TTK): László Buday, Director General, formerly Acting Director General
  7. Wigner Research Centre for Physics (Wigner FK): Péter Lévai, Director General, formerly Director General
  8. Office for Supported Research Groups (TKI): Attila Ács, Director

A unique new method developed by researchers in Szeged uses the most advanced artificial intelligence to enable a more thorough examination of the brain cells’ function

There is an increasingly strong emphasis on mapping the unique properties of cells in life science research. This is extremely important because the unique characteristics of the building blocks of various organs and tissues provide important information for better understanding the background of malfunctions and the earliest possible detection of disease processes. Researchers at the ELKH Szeged Biological Research Centre and the University of Szeged have developed a unique new method for studying the physiological function of brain cells. With their proprietary, artificial intelligence-controlled, automated microscope system, they are able to find any cell within a living tissue sample, stimulate cells with predefined characteristics, and collect biological information by recording response processes. The developed new method may open up new perspectives in the early diagnosis and understanding of such worldwide spread diseases as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, thus supporting the development of effective therapies.

The Biological Image Processing and Machine Learning Working Group of the ELKH Szeged Biological Research Centre led by bioinformatician Dr Péter Horváth, and Dr Gábor Tamás, professor of neurobiology, head of the Cerebral Neural Networks Research Group at the University of Szeged, have been working together for several years on system microscopy solutions that have opened new avenues for the study of individual cells. Their latest development is the Autopatcher, an electrophysiological procedure using artificial intelligence, which was featured in the highly prestigious journal Nature Communications on February 10. The method is unique in several respects: cell tests are performed on native (unstained or otherwise unlabeled) brain tissue samples using machine vision and artificial intelligence. Using deep learning algorithms, the software, based on the analysis of thousands of images, is able to automatically determine the location of the micropipette integrated into the microscope based on the camera image and precisely move the pipette, automatically detecting target cells and their spatial displacement. Depending on the purpose of the test, the artificial intelligence-controlled system selects each target cell to ensure that the success of the measurement is as high as possible. The new technology will contribute, among others, to the discovery of new human cell types or a better understanding of the connections of brain neurons. Professor Gábor Tamás had previously discovered a new type of human brain cell in a similar way, and the new method just developed also anticipates further discoveries of great significance.

Machine vision and automation

Machine learning – i.e. artificial intelligence, or one of its varieties called deep learning – algorithms based on the images of the camera built into the microscope system control the micropipette. Machine vision provides much more precise targeting, measured in micrometers, than the human eye. After the machine-learning phase, the system is already able to detect specific cell types in an unknown brain tissue sample. A miniature electrode built into a pipette directed to the membrane of the selected cell is capable of individually stimulating the cells. By following the response to finely controlled stimulation, important information about physiological cell activity can be obtained without damaging the cell. In other cases, using the air pressure control system built into the pipette, it is possible to remove even the nucleus and the cytoplasm, and carry out molecular single-cell analysis on this basis, which can be an important source of genetic information, for example in combination with gene sequencing, explains Krisztián Koós, the first author of a paper published by the research group. The research and the development of the microscope system have great long-term potential: they can put drug trials on a new footing, for example, by allowing cell-level drug effects to be traced on a living tissue sample. By installing another micropipette, the system can make it possible to investigate the connections between neurons: to determine the characteristics of the cellular response to stimulation, and analyze the influence of stimulus propagation.

Unlabeled, precise cell analysis

Label-free examination of cells is another important innovation of the development project carried out in Szeged. Staining methods widely used to identify cell types (e.g. fluorescent staining) necessarily result in cell death in living tissues, so studies of cell function are precluded. Although there are other, less drastic cell labeling methods (e.g. genetically modified fluorescent cell labeling methods), their use is not feasible for many cell types. This means that native (unstained) cell testing overcomes a number of disadvantages that have so far hampered the testing of individual cells.

The operation of an automated system microscope is clearly illustrated in this video.

 

The system plans the path of the pipette to approach the target cell and avoids any obstructions. (Source: Nature Communications)

Knowledge and technology transfer between ELKH and Hungarian innovation actors can be more efficient with the cooperation of MISZ and ELKH

The Hungarian Association for Innovation (MISZ) and the Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELKH) Secretariat signed a cooperation agreement on January 27, 2021. The common goal of the cooperating parties is to promote the economic and social utilization of the scientific findings generated at the research sites belonging to the ELKH research network, and to strengthen the cooperation between ELKH and other stakeholders interested in innovation. In addition to expressing their intention to cooperate, the parties developed a joint work plan for 2021 that set out the planned activities for the first year of the partnership.

Gábor Szabó, Chairman of MISZ, said: “Several of the ELKH institutes are also direct members of MISZ and play a key role, for example, in the operation of our R&D Department. We want to raise our previous institutional cooperation to a higher level through the agreement signed with the ELKH Secretariat, and based on an elaborated work plan. We believe that the process from basic research to the market can be further enhanced. This type of activity is also recognized separately within the framework of the Hungarian Innovation Grand Prize competition announced by MISZ every year.˝

Miklós Maróth, President of ELKH said in connection with the signing of the agreement: “Due to its size and high-quality research staff, the Eötvös Loránd Research Network is a key player of the Hungarian knowledge-based innovation activity. ELKH considers it its mission to strengthen and develop the Hungarian research network based on the principles of excellence, as well as to promote the relations of the research sector with other stakeholders in the economy and society. As a recognized and responsible Hungarian representative of matters relating to innovation, MISZ can support ELKH effectively in these activities, including enhancing the economic and social impact of scientific research, development and innovation.”

The cooperation of the parties will focus on boosting knowledge and technology transfer processes between domestic innovation stakeholders. In addition to utilizing the scientific results generated at the ELKH research sites for the national economy, the common goal of the two organizations is to contribute to the supply of young researchers and talent management, to strengthen regional knowledge bases building on cooperation between universities and the research network, and to increase the innovation and income-generating capacity of the Hungarian industry, agriculture and the service sector.

Novel method developed at KOKI further improves efficiency and reliability of cognitive experiments on rodents

The Lendület Laboratory of Systems Neuroscience of the ELKH Institute of Experimental Medicine (KOKI), led by Balázs Hangya, has developed a novel device capable of fully automated training of laboratory rodents that help researchers study cognitive functions including learning, memory, attention, planning and decision making, with increased efficiency and reliability. This methodological innovation has recently been published in the Scientific Reports journal of the Springer Nature family.

It is increasingly clear to most policy makers that the prevention and treatment of neurological disorders carries huge potential benefits to the society. However, to realize these benefits, we need to understand the mechanisms of human thinking, for which it is inevitable to perform rodent experiments. In such experiments, experimental mice or rats are trained on learning, attentional and other cognitive tasks while constantly monitoring neuronal functions.

This task is time consuming, difficult to standardize, and direct contact with people is a significant stressor for the animals that may affect the efficiency and outcome of the experiments. This situation has been improved by Balázs Hangya and his group at the ELKH Institute of Experimental Medicine. The team has developed an automated training system in which mice can move from their home compartment to an adjacent “training chamber” where training takes place with automated software control. Mice learn the task much faster than during traditional “manual training”, while their stress hormone levels are the same as those of control mice. The new method can also save many working hours, as mice learn even when the experimenter is absent, for instance attending a conference, or be quarantined due to the epidemic. Since subconscious biases by the experimenter can be ruled out, the behavior of any two mice can readily be compared.

Compared to the few automated training systems available to date, the new device is freely programmable for a full range of cognitive rodent tests and can be combined with automated wireless optogenetics experiments. It is affordable and open source, that is, anyone can freely develop and customize it for their own experimental purposes. Thus, the new equipment significantly supports experiments in understanding cognitive functioning, including learning, memory, attention, planning and decision making.

Balázs Hangya and his research team have been working for many years to develop tools and methods to better understand the normal and abnormal functioning of the brain, which can bring us closer to a more effective treatment of serious diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. We have also reported on their recent study about the development of a new procedure that allows the localization of measurement devices implanted in the mouse brain with high accuracy by using CT and MRI measurements that was published in Nature Communications earlier this year.

Authors and source of the article:

Eszter Birtalan, Anita Bánhidi, Joshua I. Sanders, Diána Balázsfi, Balázs Hangya

Efficient training of mice on the 5‐choice serial reaction time task in an automated rodent training system

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-79290-2

Explore, Verify, Predict: Genetic Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 Variants Responsible for COVID-19 Cases in Hungary

Genetics research, aiming to identify SARS-CoV-2 variants responsible for pandemic COVID-19 cases, is a valuable tool to explore the geographical spread of the virus retrospectively, as well as to predict the presumable long-term effectiveness of vaccine candidates under development. A consortial research program involving four academical cities of Hungary (Szeged, Pécs, Debrecen, Budapest) represents a significant step forward, and will be integrated into the international collaboration of COVID research. The genome-wide analysis of SARS-CoV-2 identified from patient samples is a unique source of information, independent of other epidemiological data and studies. It is a specific method appropriate to trace back and characterize (model) the spring/summer wave of the pandemics, and reveals the specific virus variants currently spreading in the region of Hungary.

The Hungarian research project, focusing on the genetic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) identified from clinical samples, is led by the ELKH Biological Research Centre (BRC). It is executed in co-operation with the Virology National Laboratory of Hungary (belonging to the University of Pécs) and participating national clinical laboratories for diagnostics. The most recent findings from the project support the theory that in Hungary the current (autumn) wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is independent of the first outbreak of the virus witnessed by the population of the country in spring. This means that the current epidemiological situation is not a consequence of a continuous evolution of transmission originating from latent spring cases. Instead, it results from a new introduction at midsummer. In addition, a comparative analysis of the identified virus variants verifies that the first rise of COVID-19 cases in spring remained localized in the affected regions of the country, supporting the effectiveness of protective safety measures in terms of preventing or at least slowing the spread of viral transmission. In contrast, genome sequencing (i.e. the precise genetic analysis of the genes defining SARS-CoV-2) of samples from the current (second) wave has revealed a country-wide chain of infection, supporting the role of significant internal transmission.

“Significantly, the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 is constantly changing, but this process is relatively slow compared to the same microbiological feature of other viruses (e.g. influenza)”, said Professor Dr. Ferenc Jakab, head of the Virology National Laboratory (VNL) of Hungary and Dr. Gábor Kemenesi, researcher at the VNL. However, the natural modifications (mutations) of the viral genome can play a significant role in the viability and contagiousness of the virus. The temporal and spatial maps of these patterns of gene mutations reveal important information on the lines of transmission.

“The evolutionary tree developed on the basis of the identified genetic variants of SARS-CoV-2 indicates that in Hungary the first few cases of infection occurred at the end of February and in the first half of March, i.e. simultaneously with the COVID-19 outbreak in Western Europe. These data disprove the common belief that the virus may have appeared earlier in Hungary,” said the researchers Dr. Eszter Ari and Dr. Bálint Márk Vásárhelyi, who executed the bioinformatics analyses of the identified genome sequences.

As the research project has revealed, the SARS-CoV-2 variants responsible for the current chains of infection in Hungary are the same as those spreading in Europe. Specifically, the variants dominating the Hungarian lines of transmission are those that developed in other European countries during springtime. “Building on the prominent knowledge of our research groups in evolutionary biology and bioinformatics, we execute fast and real-time genomic analyses of clinical SARS-CoV-2 samples, aiming to characterize the domestic spread of the virus, as well as to immediately identify novel virus variants,” said the project leaders, Dr. Bálint Kintses and Dr. Balázs Papp, members of BRC and the Hungarian Centre of Excellence for Molecular Medicine (HCEMM). National data on SARS-CoV-2 variants appearing in countrywide clinical practice make an important contribution to international COVID monitoring. Ongoing improvement of our knowledge on the pandemic is essential to prepare for future challenges, including a vigilant detection of any novel variants. Monitoring SARS-CoV-2 variants is also a valuable tool to assess the presumable effectiveness of future vaccination programmes, as well as that of the available therapeutic options.

A detailed description of the research project, and the analysis and interpretation of genome sequencing data, including a summary of SARS-CoV-2 variants currently spreading in Hungary are available here (in Hungarian).

Brief statistics

The number of verified SARS-CoV-2-positive cases has been increasing exponentially since the first cases were diagnosed in December 2019. Globally, as of 8 December 2020, there have been 66,729,375 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 1,535,982 deaths, as reported by the WHO. To put it in perspective, seasonal influenza-associated respiratory disease is estimated to cause up to 650,000 deaths per year worldwide, while the most recent pandemic caused by influenza A (H1N1) virus, occurring in 2009, is estimated to have caused between 100 000 and 400 000 deaths globally in the first year. Currently, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is over 250,000 in Hungary, and over 6,000 Covid-related deaths have occurred so far (population: 9.77 million).

 

One of the key technologies for the first power plant-sized fusion reactor to be tested at the Centre for Energy Research

Hungarian researchers and companies will develop a machine protection system for the international fusion project ITER. The Shattered Pellet Injector is designed to quickly quench the fusion reaction before it can damage the inner walls. The project was made possible through a 2.4 million euro tender won by the Fusion Plasma Physics Department of the Centre for Energy Research, Eötvös Loránd Research Network together with several Hungarian companies.

The terrestrial realization of the energy production of stars has been the desire of mankind for half a century.  The ITER experiment currently under construction in France is a major step in this direction.  In this device, heated to a temperature of 100 million °C – ten times hotter than the temperature in the middle of the sun – charged hydrogen gas (plasma) fuses into helium, producing ten times more energy than is used to heat the reaction. Igniting a star on Earth will take the most complex device mankind has built to date. This international ITER project presents a tremendous challenge and opportunity for companies to develop their know-how.

Rendered Image of the Shatter Pellet Test Laboratory at Centre for Energy ResearchWhile starting up ITER will be a milestone, it is also critical to be able to shut down the experiment safely. The hot plasma is shot with hundreds of small ice particles, by firing a projectile made out of minus 260 °C hydrogen ice, also known as a pellet, against a plate with high velocity. This, like a shotgun, scatters the pellet into small pieces of ice, in terms of its function as a kind of powder extinguisher.

As a result of the research in the last decade, a prototype of the Scattered Pellet Injector can now be built in Budapest.  Researchers at the Centre for Energy Research will make a significant contribution to the future safe operation of ITER by testing the production, acceleration and fracture of pellets, the engineering design of the launcher and the development of the necessary experimental and monitoring methods.

Shattered Pellet Injector being tested on ITER’s predecessor, the European JET tokamak

The gas system of the Shattered Pellet Injector is provided by H-Ion Ltd., while the cryogenic design is built with the help of VTMT Ltd. This project builds on the Hungarian contribution to ITER started by Wigner RCP, C3D Ltd., GEMS Ltd. and Fusion Instruments Ltd., showing the high value of Hungarian researchers and high-tech companies to this exciting international project.

Press contact:

Tamás Szabolics, Centre for Energy Research

+36 30 388 6770

szabolics.tamas@ek-cer.hu

Network method reveals long-term sequence learning in birdsong

The sequential organization of birdsong has been studied on collared flycatchers by the researchers of the Evolutionary Ecology Group (ELKH Centre for Ecological Research, Hungary) and the Behavioral Ecology Group (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary). The results were published in Behavioral Ecology. The results indicate that the syntax of birdsong is not fixed, but changes in the lifetime of the bird. Older males produce songs with longer repeated sequences of syllables, probably thanks to long-term learning processes. The study of the ontogeny and evolution of animal communication can help us to better understand the adaptation of animals to the changing environment and the mechanism of sexual selection. Sándor Zsebők, the primary author of the publication, summarized their research.

Singing collared flycatcher male.

Not only humans, but also animals communicate with acoustic signals containing sequences of discrete elements where the order of the elements is not random. However, contrary to human language, we know little about the variety and function of sequential organization in animal signals. To understand this phenomenon, one must reveal the changes of the sequential patterns within individuals through their lives and the differences among individuals. Furthermore, it is also necessary to reveal the function of sequences in terms of the relationship between the sequential organization and the quality and pairing success of individuals.

Birdsong is an ideal model for studying animal communication as it is easy to record and process, and we have a great deal of knowledge about it. Birds signal their territory and advertise themselves in courtship season. Their song can contain such information about the signaler as its physical condition, health and experience, which are all important in territorial conflicts and choosing a mate.

Sonogram of the collared flycatcher song. The different syllable types are indicated by different letters. The researchers studied the order of different syllable types with network methods.

One of the well-known model species used in this study is the collared flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis). In this European passerine bird species, the males sing and defend their territory and attract the females with their song in the courtship season. The researchers recorded the same birds repeatedly on the same a day, on different days and in different years. The order of song elements (known as syllables) was characterized by modern network analysis methods, and the variety of sequences was quantified by the network variables. The authors also quantified the relationship between the network measures and such male qualities as condition, age and arrival to the breeding area, pairing success and survival. Data from about 200 individuals were analyzed.

It was found that the order of syllables was not random. Instead, longer sequences were repeated in the songs. The birds produced syllables in a way that the frequency differences of the consecutive syllables were higher than could have been expected in a random case. This indicates that the males try to show off to advertise their capabilities, as producing sequences in this way is more difficult and requires more effort than singing in the same pitch. The researchers also showed that the differences in the usage of syllable sequences were higher between individuals than within individuals, which further supports the idea that males may express their individual qualities in the ordering of the syllables. It was also shown that older males sing with longer repeated sequences and more unique syllables within their songs than younger individuals. The authors have posited that there are long-term learning processes behind this intriguing phenomenon.

The figures show the network of syllable types. The nodes (circles) represent the syllable types, where the colors indicate the number of connections with other syllable types. The connections (arrows) show which syllable types follow each other in the songs.

Although the researchers could not obtain direct proof of the relationship between the ordering of syllables and the choice of mate, it may be advantageous to listen the ordering in both territorial and mate choice contexts. Older males may have more experience not only in singing but also in territorial fighting, and may also be more experienced in finding good quality nest holes and avoiding predators, something that can also be important when selecting a mate.

These results can support such research directions that aim to reveal the determinants of the evolution of complex communication, including human language. Also, in general, using the birdsong as a model of complex learnt behavior, the research can help us to understand how animals can adapt to the changing environment, something which is essential for predicting anthropogenic effects on wildlife.

Cite:

Sándor Zsebők, Gábor Herczeg, Miklós Laczi, Gergely Nagy, Éva Vaskuti, Rita Hargitai, Gergely Hegyi, Márton Herényi, Gábor Markó, Balázs Rosivall, Eszter Szász, Eszter Szöllősi, János Török, László Zsolt Garamszegi, Sequential organization of birdsong: relationships with individual quality and fitness, Behavioral Ecology, araa104

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/araa104