The Australian chestnut-crowned babbler has been found to be one species of birds that is able to take sounds and rearrange them in a string to convey different messages, according to a Swiss study.
Dr. Sabrina Engesser, lead author of the study on the chestnut-crowned babbler is excited that this major breakthrough could shed light on how humanoid species started forming language by taking a seemingly meaningless string of sounds and rearrange them in such a manner that they would convey a wider array of messages.
Dr. Sabrina Engesser of the University of Zurich, stated:
“Although previous studies indicate that animals, particularly birds, are capable of stringing different sounds together as part of a complex song, these songs generally lack a specific meaning and changing the arrangement of sounds within a song does not seem to alter its overall message”.
What was previously thought to be a specific trait of human language is now increasingly discovered in the animal kingdom, particularly with birds.
‘Phonemic power’ if we will is still found to be restricted with the chestnut-crowned babbler. Nonetheless, the mere existence of such capacity with birds is astonishing.
The study found that the calls of the chestnut-crowned babbler amount to 15 different strings of sounds used in different situations. Three of them were of particular interest to the team of scientists analyzing the birds’ language.
Chestnut-crowned babbler, unlike other bird species, do not sing. They use short calls that comprise clearly distinctive sounds. According to Professor Andy Russell, co-author of the study on the babblers, this might be the case as it is comparatively easier to combine sounds already known than to create an entirely new sound for one situation.
The two most used sounds distinguished in the chestnut-crowned babbler song were labeled by the research team as A and B. Thus, the call recorded during the babbler’s flight was a string of AB.
When feeding the babbler chicks, the birds emitted BAB calls. To check if these strings of sound indeed have meaning to the chestnut-crowned babbler, the scientists replayed them to the birds.
This prompted the birds to check their nests when the BAB calls were heard, while the AB string prompted them to look for other babblers flying around.
These two call have a similar structure, but the fact that they are produced in different behavioral contexts and that other individuals differentiate between them, makes these strings a clear sign of messages-conveying language.
The study on the chestnut-crowned babbler and the species ability to create meaningful strings of sounds is published in the PLoS Biology online journal.
Image Source: scmp.com