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Birds use grammatical structures in their vocalizations; the first recorded use of sentence syntax in non-human species


(NaturalNews) Researchers have discovered that birds not only use a range of calls to communicate different types of messages, but some can also combine the calls in specific ways to form phrases in order to convey much more complex information.

For instance, the UK's Daily Mail reports that Japanese great tits, also known as Parus minor, have been found to tie calls together producing messages that communicate different meanings. Researchers have said that this is the first example they have found of a non-human species using syntax when talking to each other.

The Daily Mail reported further:

"Great tits are well known for having a diverse vocal repertoire, with some species producing more than 40 different songs and calls.

"Japanese great tits are closely related to the great tits which are commonly found in gardens in Britain."

Now, a team of scientists from Japan, Germany and Sweden have discovered that the bird not only utilizes different calls, but that they include syntax as well – that is, a set of vocal rules that give them structure.

Dr. Toshitaka Suzuki, who led the research team at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Kanagawa, Japan, said that among the bird's threat responses is a call that he has labeled "ABC," which means "scan for danger." He explains that the birds use these calls to warn others of a feathered predator like a falcon.

Another call, which he labeled "D," means "come here," and is used when a tit finds a new food source or is attempting to encourage a partner into a nest.

Creating new words and phrases via evolution?

The birds use these and other calls to demonstrate their command of communications either alone or in combination, forming a complex system of interaction.

For example, when the calls are played together in their natural order – ABC-D – other birds will respond by approaching while at the same time scanning the area for dangers. But when researchers played the combination in reverse, the birds did not respond (D-ABC).

"This demonstrates that syntax is not unique to human language, but also evolved independently in birds," said Dr. David Wheatcroft, co-author of the study, which was recently published in the journal Nature Communications, and a biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden. "Understanding why syntax has evolved in tits can give insights into its evolution in humans."

Other research into communications techniques of non-human primates and birds suggests that maybe an ability to combine vocal elements has evolved in a number of occasions. That would imply, for instance, that perhaps chimps can create new words and even form rudimentary sentences, the Daily Mail reported.

'Over ten different notes'

That said, the ability to combine different words to form more complex sentences and expressions was thought to be unique to human communication, but at least one species of bird has turned that theory on its head.

"Human language can express limitless meanings from a finite set of words based on combinatorial rules (i.e., compositional syntax). Although animal vocalizations may be comprised of different basic elements (notes), it remains unknown whether compositional syntax has also evolved in animals," says an abstract of the scientist's research.

"Tits have over ten different notes in their vocal repertoire and use them either solely or in combination with other notes. Experiments reveal that receivers extract different meanings from 'ABC' (scan for danger) and 'D' notes (approach the caller), and a compound meaning from 'ABC–D' combinations," it continued. "However, receivers rarely scan and approach when note ordering is artificially reversed ('D–ABC').

"Thus, compositional syntax is not unique to human language but may have evolved independently in animals as one of the basic mechanisms of information transmission."





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