The use of network analysis to study complex animal communication systems: A study on nightingale song

Michael Weiss, Henrike Hultsch, Iris Adam, Constance Scharff, Silke Kipper*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


The singing of song birds can formcomplex signal systems comprised of numerous subunits sung with distinct combinatorial properties that have been described as syntax-like. This complexity has inspired inquiries into similarities of bird song to human language; but the quantitative analysis and description of song sequences is a challenging task. In this study, we analysed song sequences of commonnightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos) bymeans of a network analysis. We translated long nocturnal song sequences into networks of song types with song transitions as connectors. As network measures, we calculated shortest path length and transitivity and identified the 'small-world' character of nightingale song networks. Besides comparing networkmeasureswith conventional measures of song complexity, we also found a correlation between network measures and age of birds. Furthermore, we determined the numbers of in-coming and out-going edges of each song type, characterizing transition patterns. These transition patternswere shared acrossmales for certain song types. Playbacks with different transition patterns provided first evidence that these patterns are responded to differently and thus play a role in singing interactions. We discuss potential functions of the network properties of song sequences in the framework of vocal leadership. Network approaches provide biologically meaningful parameters to describe the song structure of species with extremely large repertoires and complex rules of song retrieval.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20140460
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1785
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Bird song sequence
  • Luscinia megarhynchos
  • Network analysis
  • Nightingale
  • Syntax


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