Pre-Print - Erich Jarvis

Erich Jarvis is an African-American neuroscientist with an incredible story. He has already written an autobiography (Jarvis, 2015), and has had his life chronicled by PBS and Wikipedia...

Erich Jarvis

Contributor: William Grisham

Biographical Notes:

Erich Jarvis is an African-American neuroscientist with an incredible story. He has already written an autobiography (Jarvis, 2015), and has had his life chronicled by PBS and Wikipedia, so this account will be brief. Erich was born in Harlem, and later raised by his mother in a single-parent home in New York, but with help from his grandparents. His mentally ill father became homeless and was eventually killed by a rogue gang. His early years were not all doom and gloom, however. He went to the High School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan and trained in dance with a scholarship from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. (One can get a glimpse of him dancing in the PBS video in the references.) The exacting and demanding aspects of dance training shaped his tenacious approach to his work as did the values communicated by his mother. At one point, Erich was faced with the choice of becoming a dancer or a scientist. It is fortunate for us that he chose neuroscience.


Erich went to Hunter College in New York for his BA and published six research papers in the course of his undergraduate work there. He reached another crossroads as he finished his BA: should he go to graduate school, to medical school, or both? Again, we got lucky, and he went across town to Rockefeller University where he earned his doctorate studying with Fernando Nottebohm and stayed on as a postdoc in that lab. After serving on the faculty at Duke University, he has returned to Rockefeller to fill the shoes of his former mentor and to continue to pursue the notable and ground-breaking research program outlined below.


Erich's research is based in comparative neurobiology. He has examined oscines (songbirds) and also non-oscine birds that don't sing but can also learn vocalizations, such as parrots (Jarvis and Mello, 2000), and hummingbirds (Jarvis et al 2000). Further, he has made important contributions to understanding gene expression differences between vocal learning species and species who don't learn their vocalizations (Hara et al., 2012; Pfenning et al 2014).


Erich has not confined himself to avians, however, but has extended to mice, which also sing-- particularly during sexual and agonistic encounters (Arriaga & Jarvis, 2013). Erich has pushed his studies of mice to explore possible parallels with a somewhat larger mammal: humans. Erich's lab discovered that mutations of the Foxp2 gene produced a somewhat parallel disruption in both mouse and human vocalizations (Chabout et al., 2016). 


Erich's comparative interests have also brought him to draw inferences about not only bird evolution (Jarvis et al, 2014) but also brain evolution in general. Perhaps his most noteworthy publication was in Science (Jarvis, 2019) in which he draws together the many threads of his research and weaves them into a beautiful tapestry. In this article, he champions one of the central tenets of Darwinian evolution: continuity among species. His bold thesis suggests that there are analogous areas for vocal imitation and vocal production in some bird and mammalian orders. 


In his career, Erich Jarvis has been all over the map. Indeed, he is drawing the map by better describing not only the terra incognita of the neurobiology of vocalization but also the evolutionary processes underlying these behaviors.  





Teaching Resources: 

Arriaga G, Jarvis ED. Mouse vocal communication system: are ultrasounds learned or innate?. Brain Lang. 2013;124(1):96-116. doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2012.10.002


Chabout J, Sarkar A, Patel SR, Radden T, Dunson DB, Fisher SE, Jarvis ED. A Foxp2 Mutation Implicated in Human Speech Deficits Alters Sequencing of Ultrasonic Vocalizations in Adult Male Mice. Front Behav Neurosci.2016;10:197. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00197. eCollection 2016. PubMed PMID: 27812326; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5071336. 


Chakraborty M, Jarvis ED. Brain evolution by brain pathway duplication. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015 Dec 19;370(1684). doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0056. Review. PubMed PMID: 26554045; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4650129. 


Hara E, Rivas MV, Ward JM, Okanoya K, Jarvis ED (2012) Convergent Differential Regulation of Parvalbumin in the Brains of Vocal Learners. PLOS ONE 7(1): e29457.


Jarvis, E. D., Ribeiro, S., da Silva, M. L., Ventura, D., Vielliard, J., & Mello, C. V. (2000). Behaviourally driven gene expression reveals song nuclei in hummingbird brain. Nature, 406(6796), 628–632.


Jarvis ED, Mello CV. Molecular mapping of brain areas involved in parrot vocal communication. J Comp Neurol. 2000 Mar 27;419(1):1-31. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1096-9861(20000327)419:1<1::aid-cne1>;2-m. PubMed PMID: 10717637; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2538445. 


Jarvis, E. D., Mirarab, S., Aberer, A. J., Li, B., Houde, P., Li, C., Ho, S. Y., Faircloth, B. C., Nabholz, B., Howard, J. T., Suh, A., Weber, C. C., da Fonseca, R. R., Li, J., Zhang, F., Li, H., Zhou, L., Narula, N., Liu, L., Ganapathy, G., … Zhang, G. (2014). Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds. Science (New York, N.Y.), 346(6215), 1320–1331.


Pfenning AR, Hara E, Whitney O, Rivas MV, Wang R, Roulhac PL, Howard JT, Wirthlin M, Lovell PV, Ganapathy G, Mouncastle J, Moseley MA, Thompson JW, Soderblom EJ, Iriki A, Kato M, Gilbert MT, Zhang G, Bakken T, Bongaarts A, Bernard A, Lein E, Mello CV, Hartemink AJ, Jarvis ED. Convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds. Science. 2014 Dec 12;346(6215):1256846. doi: 10.1126/science.1256846. PubMed PMID: 25504733; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4385736.