The chestnut-crowned babbler is most common in the Australian Outback, and scientists from the University of Exeter and the University of Zurich disclosed that this bird can characterize its calls with rearranged sounds to convey meanings to its mates or chicks.
Stringing together meaningless sounds in order to create meaningful ones was once thought to be a human trait alone.
In their study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, the study authors stressed just how important this new discovery is to better understand how the human language evolved.
Dr. Andy Russell, co-researcher of the research, from University of Exeter said, “It is the first evidence outside of a human that an animal can use the same meaningless sounds in different arrangements to generate new meaning”. But now, scientists have found out that a species of bird, Babbler birds, are able to communicate and convey messages to others of its own kind by readjusting the sounds that they produce. They were able to determine that “this species uses the same acoustic elements (A and B) in different arrangements (AB or BAB) to create two functionally distinct vocalizations”.
What was interesting was that the birds were capable of differentiating between the different call types by looking at the nests when they heard a feeding prompt call and by looking out for incoming birds when they heard a flight call.
Co-researcher Dr Simon Townsend, from the University of Zurich said that sounds made by two babbler birds are structurally quite similar, but they are produced in completely different behavioral contexts and listening birds can identify the different. The chestnut-crowned babbler instantly knew there was a difference in the rearranged sounds when it heard it, given its distinct response.
Although, birds create sounds that essentially mean the same thing, the babbler bird strings together sounds with a specific meaning intended. When the researchers played the songs back to the babblers, the birds could clearly distinguish the two.
Then, to further ensure the results of their experiment, the researchers chopped up the A’s and B’s from each song and rearranged the letters into the other song. “It could be that when phoneme structuring first got off the ground in our hominid ancestors, this is the form it initially took”.
In theory these birds could have a very large repertoire of calls: AB, BA, ABA, BAB, BABA, and so on and so forth. But the babblers use them to make only two different calls, so it’s unclear if there’s much underlying phonological complexity at work.
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