As each day passes, we discover the uniqueness of the wildlife that shares Earth with us. Sometimes, scientists are astonished to find out that some species are not as different from us humans as we previously believed. The newest study on the matter points out that a certain type of bird uses compositional syntax in order to communicate.
Compositional syntax refers to the combination of different words into a sentence and communicating compound meaning. Until now, it was known that only humans are capable of such abilities. However, a recent study proves that we are not as unique as we think: Japanese great tits also make use of compositional syntax when calling for their fellows.
The results were released in the Nature Communications journal yesterday. According to Toshitaka N. Suzuki, the lead author of the research, the discovery reveals an amazing level of semantic complexity among avian vocal communication. In order to arrive at this conclusion, Suzuki and his team have observed that Japanese great tits use different sounds and combinations of sounds depending on the context.
Usually, birds chirp, warble, peep and twitter to wither alarm other when danger approaches, to make known the location of food or to woo their mates. However, the discovery of Suzuki and his team shows that their communication can also have more complex meanings.
The researchers had to observe the ways in which the tits responded to hearing various calls. Therefore, when the birds heard the ABC combination of notes, they would frantically look for danger. However, the note D would make them fly towards the source of the sound. However, when the scientists combined ABC with D, the tits moved towards the sound as they scanned for threats, which demonstrates their capability of understanding compositional syntax. When reversed, the combination D-ABC did rarely determine them to act.
The results of the study provide clear evidence that the birds pay close attention to the combination and the order of the sounds they hear. Furthermore, bird calls are very much likely to include complex information.
According to animal communication researcher and behavioural ecologist William A. Searcy from the University of Miami, birds have a very complex communication system. While discovering syntax in bird calls will surely give us a better insight on the evolution of syntax in humans, we should keep in mind that it is not a precursor to human languages, since birds are not ancestral.
Either way, we are proven once more that animals have more capabilities than we initially thought, and we are similar to them in ways we have not even considered before.
Image Source: Roberto Melotti