A study conducted by researchers from the University of Zurich suggests that Babbler birds communicate similarly to the way humans do. The chestnut-crowned babbler also known as Pomatostomus ruficeps is able to rearrange meaningless sounds in such a way that they generate combinations with new meanings. More details about the study were published in the journal PLOS Biology.
This bird lives in the arid region of Australia and it is considered to be a highly social bird. These Babbler birds do not simply sing. Their calls convey a particular meaning. They piece together particular sounds in order to transmit ideas. Researchers believe that this is the first time other creatures besides humans use combinations of sounds in order to express what they want to communicate.
Language is the main ability which differentiates humans from animals. Scientists have analyzed different types of animals for a long time in order to find anything related to the evolution of language abilities. They have found some similarities. For example Campbell’s monkeys were discovered to produce two alarm sounds which are specific to predators. However scientists have not found evidence of a specific ability to form meaningful sound by combining meaningless ones, which is the fundamental property of human language.
However in Babbler birds researchers have observed a certain pattern. When they fly they produce an “AB” sound, whereas when they feed their chicks they produce a “BAB” pattern. The researchers could see this when they played the BAB sound to the birds and observe how they paid attention to the nest. The investigators also noticed that the sound themselves did not carry as much meaning as their arrangement.
Simon Townsend from the University of Zurich remarked:
“This is the first time that the capacity to generate new meaning from rearranging meaningless elements has been shown to exist outside of humans.”
He also said that even though the pattern is a simple one it can still help scientists understand how the ability to generate meaning emerged in humans. Townsend believes that when phoneme structure appeared for the first time in our hominid ancestors it could have been the same as in the case Babbler birds.
Image Source: Birding