University of Zurich PhD student, Dr. Sabrina Engesser has recently published a new study which revealed that an Australian bird, the chestnut-crowned babbler (pied babbler) uses a key element in human language. By stringing a combination of sounds to form new meanings, the pied babbler is communicating through a language that is similar to how humans are able to form substantive words.
The bird, which is only found in the arid zone of Australia creates many sounds, and by rearranging the sounds into different combinations for its calls, the pied babbler was able to communicate. The way the pied babbler does it is different from creating several sounds to form a complex song that has no particular meaning like other song birds do.
According to Dr. Engesser, the pied babbler does not sing but rather uses its extended sound repertoire to produce individual sounds that are acoustically different from each other.
UK’s University of Exeter (UK) professor, Andy Russell has been studying the pied babblers for 11 years. He is the co-author of the study. He said that their findings led them to believe that the birds choose to rearrange the sounds to create a new meaning since it is easier to use the sounds that are already existing instead of creating new ones. They made a distinction between sound A and sound B, which the pied babbler reused in dissimilar arrangements when particular behaviors were performed. A flight call when the birds were flying was a combination of A and B. When the birds are feeding their young, the feeding prompt call was BAB.
They recorded these sounds and when they played it back to the birds, they showed that they were capable of distinguishing between the different types of calls. When they heard the feeding prompt call, the birds looked at the nests. They look out for birds coming in when the flight call was heard.
They intermixed the sounds, using sounds from the feeding prompt call to create a flight call and vice-versa and the birds were still able to make the distinction, which led the researchers to conclude that the sounds were indeed rearrangements.
According to the researchers, this is the first time that they encountered a species other than man that was able to create new meanings by rearranging what seemed to be elements that are meaningless on their own. Dr. Simon Townsend, the study’s senior author, who is also from the University of Zurich said that structurally, the two sounds made by the pied babbler were similar, however these sounds were produced in entirely dissimilar behavioral contexts yet the birds that were listening were able to notice the difference.
The phoneme structuring that the pied babblers made might be a simple one, but what excites the scientists is that this could help them to understand how the human’s capability to produce new meanings evolved.
Image Copyright : By Chris Tzaros / Wikimedia Commons