Neural control of complex vocal behaviors, such as birdsong and speech, requires integration of biomechanical nonlinearities through muscular output. Although control of airflow and tension of vibrating tissues are known functions of vocal muscles, it remains unclear how specific muscle characteristics contribute to specific acoustic parameters. To address this gap, we removed heparan sulfate chains using heparitinases to subtly perturb neuromuscular transmission in the syrinx of adult male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). Infusion of heparitinases into ventral syringeal muscles altered their excitation threshold and reduced neuromuscular transmission changing their ability to modulate airflow. The changes in muscle activation dynamics caused a reduction in frequency modulation rates and elimination of many high frequency syllables, but did not alter the fundamental frequency of syllables. Sound amplitude was reduced and sound onset pressure was increased, suggesting a role of muscles in the induction of self-sustained oscillations under low airflow conditions, thus enhancing vocal efficiency. These changes were reversed to pre-infusion levels by 7 days post-infusion. These results illustrate complex interactions between the control of airflow and tension and further define the importance of syringeal muscle in the control of a variety of acoustic song characteristics. In summary, the findings reported here show that altering neuromuscular transmission can lead to reversible changes to the acoustic structure of song. Understanding the full extent of muscle involvement in song production is critical in decoding the motor program for the production of complex vocal behavior, including our search for parallels between birdsong and human speech motor control.
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