Chestnut-Crowned Babbler Birds Combine Meaningless Sounds to Create New Meaningful Signals; Possible Early Step Toward Elaborate Language Systems Used by Humans Today; First Such Example Outside of Humans

Stringing together meaningless sounds to create meaningful signals was previously thought to be the preserve of humans alone, but a new study, published online on June 29, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology, has revealed that babbler birds are also able to communicate in this way. Researchers at the Universities of Exeter in the UK and of Zurich in Switzerland discovered that the chestnut-crowned babbler – a highly social bird found in the Australian Outback – has the ability to convey new meaning by rearranging the meaningless sounds in its calls. This babbler bird communication is reminiscent of the way humans form meaningful words. The research findings reveal a potential early step in the emergence of the elaborate language systems we use today. Lead author Dr. Sabrina Engesser from the University of Zurich said: “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. In contrast to most songbirds, chestnut-crowned babblers do not sing. Instead its extensive vocal repertoire is characterized by discrete calls made up of smaller acoustically distinct individual sounds,” she added. “We think that babbler birds may choose to rearrange sounds to code new meaning because doing so through combining two existing sounds is quicker than evolving a new sound altogether,” said co-author Professor Andy Russell from the University of Exeter, who has been studying the babblers since 2004. The researchers noticed that chestnut-crowned babblers reused two sounds “A” and “B” in different arrangements when performing specific behaviors.
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