"I knew when I started this project that it was one of those crazy ones," said Erich Jarvis, a neuroscientist at Duke University. It certainly sounds like something out of mad science folklore: Jarvis wants to hatch a hybrid bird with the hindbrain of a quail and the forebrain of a finch, and then teach it to sing.
Though unlike Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, who sought fame and companionship from his concoction, Jarvis' intent is born out of a genuine scientific curiosity. He hopes that the chimera bird can teach us more about the neurological basis of birdsong, and perhaps even human speech.
Jarvis described his project to New Scientist: "The goal is to get a non-singing animal that can actually learn how to imitate sounds." Non-singing birds like quails squawk innately and don't learn their calls, while songbirds like finches learn to sing by imitating their parents. So by swapping their brains, Jarvis aims to hatch a quail with a finch-like brain that can be taught to sing.
It's certainly a creative experiment. In order for it to work, the hybrid embryo's finch forebrain needs to form connections to its quail hindbrain during development, much in the same way that the higher brains of songbirds — and humans, for that matter — connect with the hindbrain areas that control vocal muscles in the throat.
So far the results have been mixed. Researchers are encouraged to find that some of the finch neurons have headed straight for the quail's hindbrain, but whether a viable connection has been made is uncertain. All of the chimeric birds have died just before hatching.
Though that's probably because the two species develop differently, said Jarvis. Since quail chicks are more mature when they hatch compared to finch chicks, it's likely that the embryos are getting mixed developmental messages from their two different brains. If efforts to hatch a hybrid continue to fail, researchers may consider switching quails for a species that develops at a similar pace to finches.
Of course, there is other consideration: songbirds are often motivated to sing with the hope of attracting a mate. How eery would it be if, in order to get the Franken-bird to sing, scientists have to hatch a bride?