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Department of Zoology and Physiology

College of Arts and Sciences

Dr. Jonathan Prather
Associate Professor

Department of Zoology and Physiology
Program in Neuroscience
University of Wyoming
204 Biological Sciences Bldg.

EDUCATIONBird perched on a branch

B.S.          Physics, University of Virginia
Ph. D.          Neuroscience, Emory University
Postdoctoral      Neurobiology and Biology, Duke University


The goal of my lab is to understand the neural mechanisms that enable us to communicate.  This process requires that we perform and perceive complex signals, and we are only beginning to understand how those signals are processed in the central nervous system.  Particularly fascinating from a neurobiological perspective are forms of communication that are learned through social interaction, and a very familiar example is the set of sounds that we use in speech.  We are born able to produce sound, but we are not born able to produce the nuanced complexity of the sounds that we use in adult speech.  Instead, we must learn to communicate through speech by listening to the sounds we hear produced by others and refining our imitation of those sounds through trial-and-error rehearsal.
In seeking to understand the neural basis of this learning, we turn to songbirds because they also learn the songs they use in vocal communication through a developmental sequence with striking parallels to how we acquire speech.  Birds learn their songs by imitating the songs they hear produced by other members of their species, and young birds go through a “babbling” phase in which they refine their performance of the songs that they will eventually sing as adults.  In addition, songbirds possess a discrete set of neural structures specialized for the learning, performance and perception of songs.  We employ technology that allows us to eavesdrop on the activity of those neurons as the birds are going about their daily life and are engaged in singing and responding to the songs they hear performed by others.  This approach of simultaneously monitoring the activity of individual neurons and the bird’s ongoing behavior provides an essential link in seeking to understand the role of those neurons in generating the behavior.

A bird  midsongWe have used this technique in the carefully controlled conditions of the laboratory to describe how one and the same song is represented as both a vocal output and an auditory input, providing mechanistic insight into how signals that are heard may be imitated in vocal output.  We have also performed field studies of birds in the wild to link that neural activity to the bird’s perception of other birds’ songs.  Future studies linking neurophysiology and field study will allow us to take advantage of the diversity of ways that songs are produced (vocal repertoires, song syntax) and used in communication (mate attraction, territorial defense) by birds of different species, relying on those “natural experiments” to explore how higher-order features associated with the recognition and interpretation of various signals may also be encoded in the brain.


Students interested in undergraduate, graduate or postdoctoral research opportunities should contact Dr. Prather directly at


Structure and Function of the Human Nervous System (ZOO5100 / NEUR5100) in Spring semester.
General Biology (LIFE1010) in Fall semester.


Prather JF, Nardelli P, Nakanishi ST, Ross KT, Nichols TR, Pinter MJ, Cope TC. Recovery of Proprioceptive Feedback from Nerve Crush. J Physiology, in press.
Prather JF, Peters S, Nowicki S, Mooney R (2010).  Persistent representation of juvenile experience in the adult songbird brain.  J. Neurosci. 30(31): 10586-10598.
Prather JF, Peters S, Nowicki S, Mooney R.  Neural correlates of categorical perception in learned vocal communication.  Nature Neuroscience.  12(2): 221-228, 2009.
Prather JF, Peters S, Nowicki S, Mooney R.  Precise auditory-vocal mirroring in neurons for learned vocal communication.  Nature  451: 305-310, 2008.
News and Views:  Tchernichovski O and Wallman J.  Neurons of imitation.  Nature  451, 249–250, 2008.
News of the Week:  Miller G.  Mirror neurons may help songbirds stay in tune.  Science  319, 269, 2008.
Research Highlight:  Welberg L.  Mirror neurons: singing in the brain.  Nat. Rev. Neurosci.  9, 163, 2008.
Prather JF, Peters S, Nowicki S, Mooney R.  In preparation.  Central constraints on imitation of accelerated song performance.
Prather JF, Mooney R.  Song-selective neurons in the songbird brain: synaptic mechanisms and functional roles.  Neuroscience of Birdsong, eds. HP Zeigler and P Marler, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Mooney R, Prather JF, Roberts T.  Neurophysiology of birdsong learning.  In: Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference, vol. 3 (eds. H. Eichenbaum, J. Byrne), Oxford Elsevier,p. 441-474, 2008.
Bauer E, Coleman M, Roberts TF, Roy A, Prather JF, Mooney R.  The synaptic basis for an auditory vocal interface in the songbird brain.  J. Neurosci.  28: 1509-1522, 2008.
Mooney R, Prather JF.  The HVC microcircuit: the synaptic basis for interactions between song motor and vocal plasticity pathways.  J. Neurosci.  25: 1952-1964, 2005.
Haftel VK, Bichler EK, Wang QB, Prather JF, Pinter MJ, Cope TC.  Central suppression of regenerated proprioceptive afferents.  J. Neurosci.  25:4733-4742, 2005.
Prather JF and R Mooney.  Neural correlates of learned song in the avian forebrain: simultaneous representation of self and others.  Curr. Opin. Neurobiol.  14(4): 496-502, 2004.
Prather JF, Clark BD, Cope TC.  Firing rate modulation of motoneurons activated by cutaneous and muscle receptor afferents in the decerebrate cat.  J. Neurophysiol.  88: 1867-1879, 2002.
Prather JF, Powers RK, Cope TC.  Amplification and linear summation of synaptic effects on motoneuron firing rate.  J. Neurophysiol. 85: 43-53, 2001.
Haftel VK, Prather JF, Heckman CJ, Cope TC.  Recruitment of cat motoneurons in the absence of homonymous afferent feedback.  J. Neurophysiol.  86: 616 – 628, 2001.
Kawasaki M, Prather J, Guo Y-X.  Sensory cues for the gradual frequency fall responses of the gymnotiform electric fish, Rhamphichthys rostratus.  J. Comp. Physiol.  178: 453 – 462, 1996.

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