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Home > Biological Sciences home > Staff directory > Clive Catchpole, Emeritus Professor of Animal Behaviour
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Clive Catchpole, Emeritus Professor of Animal Behaviour




Sexual Selection and the Evolution of Brain and Behaviour in Birds

In recent years biologists have shown renewed interest in Darwin's theory of sexual selection. In the most controversial part of his theory, he suggested that female choice was the mechanism which produced such puzzling male structures as the peacock's tail. It is only recently that experimental work on birds has shown that Darwin was right. We have developed a line of research which seeks to test predictions from sexual selection theory. The main objective is to show how sexual selection has shaped the evolution of complex songs in birds and ultimately how this is reflected in the evolution of the brain itself. To achieve this, an interdisciplinary approach is clearly needed, and we collaborate extensively with other laboratories both here and abroad. The work involves a combination of sexual selection theory, fieldwork on populations of birds, computer analysis of song structure, laboratory experiments using captive birds and molecular biology techniques such as DNA profiling.

A singing warbler: Acrocephalus arundinaceus

Recently our work has focused more upon neurological studies of the brain pathways controlling song production. This is because the song control pathway is an important model in brain and behaviour and there are remarkable parallels between song production in birds and human speech. Both are extremely complex, learned at an early stage in development and controlled by a neural pathway in the brain. Also, in the avian brain, there are clear sex differences in structure which we can relate to differences in sexual behaviour. Our studies relate brain to behaviour and involve not only neuroanatomy, but also recent molecular techniques including gene expression in the brain.

stefan at mic 

Complex image analysis of the song control pathway in the songbird brain

We are particularly interested in the following questions:

  • How do sex differences develop in brain and behaviour?
  • How far do genetic and environmental factors shape these differences?
  • What are the effects of environmental stress and endocrine disruption?

Our work is supported mainly by grants from BBSRC, and our main collaborator is the Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology in Germany.


Removing a tame female canary from her experimental chamber, complete with nest and eggs


Woodgate, J.L., Bennett, A.T.D., Leitner, S., Catchpole, C.K. & Buchanan, K.L. (2010) Developmental stress and female mate choice behaviour in the zebra finch. Anim.Behav.79,1381-1390.

Belzner, S., Voigt, C., Catchpole, C.K. & Leitner, S. (2009) Song learning in domesticated canaries in a restricted acoustic environment. Proc.R.Soc.Lond.B 276, 2881-2886 [PubMed]

CatchpoleSlatercoverCatchpole, C.K. & Slater, P.J.B. (2008) Bird Song: Biological Themes and Variations. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 335 pp [Second Edition] [First Edition]

Markman, S., Leitner, S., Catchpole, C., Barnsley, S., Muller, C., Pascoe, D. & Buchanan, K. (2008) Pollutants increase song complexity and the volume of the brain area HVC in a songbird. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1674 [PubMed]

Leitner, S. & Catchpole, C.K. (2007) Song and brain development in canaries raised under different conditions of acoustic and social isolation over two years. Dev. Neurobiol. 67: 1478-1487 [PubMed]

Nicholson, J., Buchanan, K.L., Marshall, R.C. & Catchpole, C.K. (2007) Song sharing and repertoire size in the sedge warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus: changes within and between years. Anim. Behav. 74: 1585-1592

Marshall, R.C., Buchanan, K.L. & Catchpole, C.K. (2007) Song and female choice for extrapair copulations in the sedge warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus. Anim. Behav. 73: 629-635

Leitner, S., Marshall, R.C., Leisler, B. & Catchpole, C.K. (2006) Male song quality, egg size and offspring sex in captive canaries (Serinus canaria). Ethology 112: 554-563 [PDF at Blackwell-Synergy]

Spencer, K.A., Wimpenny, J.H., Buchanan, K.L., Lovell, P.G., Goldsmith, A.R. & Catchpole, C.K. (2005) Developmental stress affects the attractiveness of male song and female choice in the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata). Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 58: 423-428 [Abstract at SpringerLink][PDF at SpringerLink]

Marshall, R.C., Leisler, B., Catchpole, C.K. & Schwabl, H. (2005) Male song quality affects circulating but not yolk steroid concentrations in female canaries (Serinus canaria). J. Exp. Biol. 208: 4593-4598 [PubMed]

Leitner S, Voigt C, Metzdorf R, Catchpole CK. (2005) Immediate early gene (ZENK, Arc) expression in the auditory forebrain of female canaries varies in response to male song quality. J Neurobiol. 64: 275-284 [PubMed]

Spencer KA, Buchanan KL, Leitner S, Goldsmith AR, Catchpole CK. (2005) Parasites affect song complexity and neural development in a songbird. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B 272: 2037-2043 [PubMed]

Leitner, S. & Catchpole, C.K. (2004) Syllable repertoire and the size of the song control system in captive canaries (Serinus canaria). J. Neurobiol. 60: 21-27 [PubMed]

Buchanan, K.L., Leitner, S., Spencer, K.A., Goldsmith, A.R. & Catchpole, C.K. (2004) Developmental stress selectively affects the song control nucleus HVC in the zebra finch. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B 271: 2381-2386 [PubMed]

Spencer, K.A., Buchanan, K.L., Goldsmith, R.A. & Catchpole, C.K. (2004)

Developmental stress, social rank and song complexity in the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B (Suppl) 271: S121-S123 [PubMed]

Marshall RC, Buchanan KL, Catchpole CK (2003) Sexual selection and individual genetic diversity in a songbird. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B (Suppl.) 270: S248-S250 [PubMed]

Buchanan KL, Spencer KA, Goldsmith RA and Catchpole CK (2003) Song as an honest signal of past developmental stress in the European starling. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 270: 1149-1156.[PubMed]

Spencer KA, Buchanan KL, Goldsmith RA and Catchole CK (2003) Song as an honest signal of developmental stress in the zebra finch. Horm. Behav. 44: 132-139 [PubMed]

Leitner S and Catchpole CK (2002) Female canaries that respond and discriminate more between male songs of different quality have a larger song control nucleus (HVC) in the brain. J Neurobiol. 52: 294-301.[PubMed]

Leitner S, Nicholson J, Leisler B, DeVoogd TJ and Catchpole CK (2002) Song and the song control pathway in the brain can develop independently of exposure to song in the sedge warbler. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 269: 2519-2524.[PubMed]

Catchpole CK (2000) Sexual selection and evolution of song and brain structure in Acrocephalus warblers. Adv. Study Behav. 29: 45-97.

Buchanan KL, Catchpole CK (2000) Extra-pair paternity in the socially monogamous Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus as revealed by multilocus DNA fingerprinting. Ibis 142: 12-20.

Buchanan KL, Catchpole CK (2000) Song as an indicator of male parental effort in the sedge warbler. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 267: 321-326.[PubMed]

Airey DC, Buchanan KL, Szekely T, Catchpole CK, DeVoogd TJ (2000) Song, sexual selection, and a song control nucleus (HVc) in the brains of European sedge warblers. J. Neurobiol. 44: 1-6.[PubMed]

Key collaborators

  • Dr Kate Buchanan, University of Cardiff
  • Dr Rupert Marshall, University of Wales Aberystwyth
  • Dr Karen Spencer, University of Glasgow
  • Prof Manfred Gahr, Max-Planck-Institute, Seewiesen, Germany
  • Dr Bernd Leisler, Max-Planck-Institut, Radolfzell, Germany
  • Dr Stefan Leitner, Max-Plank Institute, Seewiesen, Germany

Research sponsor



Tel: 01784-443765
Fax: 01784-414224
Email: c.catchpole@rhul.ac.uk


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