Osceola B. Whitney

Assistant Professor

Main Affiliation



Center for Discovery and Innovation







OWhitney Profile Image

Osceola B. Whitney


Dr. Whitney uses molecular, anatomical, and behavioral techniques to investigate how and why birds sing. His current research focuses on deconstructing the neurogenetic mechanisms of social influences on vocal development, the epigenetic mechanisms relevant for cellular and behavioral memory, and the role these two mechanisms have in defining the sensitive period for learned vocal behavior.


Postdoctoral Fellowship in Biology, New Mexico State University, 2012
Postdoctoral Fellowship in Neurobiology, Duke University Medical Center, 2004
Ph.D. in Neuroscience, Florida State University, 2003
M.S. in Psychology, Florida A&M University, 1998
B.S. in Psychology, Lincoln University, PA 1995

Courses Taught

Biology 20700 - Organismic Biology

Biology 46000 - Animal Behavior

Biology A6000 - Animal Behavior


Research Interests

Learning intricate behavioral patterns involves sensory-motor functions that are strongly shaped by social interactions. For example, sensory–motor-based learning such as language acquisition involves both social motivation and social feedback. My lab research includes a focus on how social interactions modulate sensory–motor mechanisms that promote acquisition and maintenance of complex behavior, i.e., learned vocal communication in birds. Avian taxa are among the few animal groups other than humans that have specific vocal learning abilities. Several features of the natural vocal imitation behavior of birds make them invaluable for understanding the brain mechanisms of learned behavior. For example, both birdsong and human speech involve analogous neural circuitry, syntactic organization, sensitive periods for learning, and social/cultural transmission of vocal repertoires. Humans have long admired birds for their vocal mimicry behavior, in part because vocal imitation is required for human speech and may indicate cognitive complexity. My lab currently pursues this work using zebra finch songbirds to identify some of the single gene constituents, gene regulatory networks, and epigenetic modifications that are associated with the maturation and maintenance of the songbird neural system for vocal-motor-control. We use an integrative approach that combines behavioral, anatomical, molecular, and bioinformatic techniques. Our work is relevant for understanding how neurological conditions such as autism may interfere with learned behavior and understanding how brain mechanisms evolved to shape complex behavior.


Selected Publications

Whitney O, et al. Differential FoxP2 and FoxP1 expression in a vocal learning nucleus of the developing budgerigar. Dev Neurobiol. 2015 75(7):778-90. doi: 10.1002/dneu.22247. PMID: 25407828

Hara E, et al. Neural FoxP2 and FoxP1 expression in the budgerigar, an avian species with adult vocal learning. Behav Brain Res. 2015 283:22-9. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2015.01.017. PMID: 25601574

Whitney O, et al. Core and region-enriched networks of behaviorally regulated genes and the singing genome. Science. 2014 346(6215):1256780. doi: 10.1126/science.1256780. PMID: 25504732

Pfenning AR, et al. Convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds. Science. 2014 346(6215):1256846. doi: 10.1126/science.1256846. PMID: 25504733

Jarvis ED, et al. Global view of the functional molecular organization of the avian cerebrum: mirror images and functional columns. J Comp Neurol. 2013 521(16):3614-65. doi: 10.1002/cne.23404. PMID: 23818122

Warren WC, et al.The genome of a songbird. Nature. 2010 464(7289):757-62. doi: 10.1038/nature08819. PMID: 20360741

Künstner A, et al. Comparative genomics based on massive parallel transcriptome sequencing reveals patterns of substitution and selection across 10 bird species. Mol Ecol. 2010 19 Suppl 1:266-76. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04487.x. PMID: 20331785

Wada K, et al. A molecular neuroethological approach for identifying and characterizing a cascade of behaviorally regulated genes. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 103(45):17064. doi: 10;103(41):15212-7. PMID: 17018643

Whitney O, Johnson F. Motor-induced transcription but sensory-regulated translation of ZENK in socially interactive songbirds. J Neurobiol. 2005 65(3):251-9. PMID: 16155900

Whitney O, Soderstrom K, Johnson F. CB1 cannabinoid receptor activation inhibits a neural correlate of song recognition in an auditory/perceptual region of the zebra finch telencephalon. J Neurobiol. 2003 56(3):266-74. PMID: 12884265

Johnson F, Soderstrom K, Whitney O. Quantifying song bout production during zebra finch sensory-motor learning suggests a sensitive period for vocal practice. Behav Brain Res. 2002 131(1-2):57-65. PMID: 11844572

Whitney O, Soderstrom K, Johnson F. Post-transcriptional regulation of zenk expression associated with zebra finch vocal development. Brain Res Mol Brain Res. 2000 80(2):279-90. PMID: 11038263