Experimental evidence for compositional syntax in bird calls


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. Here we report the first experimental evidence for compositional syntax in a wild animal species, the Japanese great tit (Parus minor). 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. 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. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10986 Posted at the Zurich Open Repository and Archive, University of Zurich ZORA URL: https://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-123824 Published Version Originally published at: Suzuki, Toshitaka N; Wheatcroft, David; Griesser, Michael (2016). Experimental evidence for compositional syntax in bird calls. Nature Communications, 7:10986. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10986

4 Figures and Tables

Cite this paper

@inproceedings{Suzuki2017ExperimentalEF, title={Experimental evidence for compositional syntax in bird calls}, author={Toshitaka N Suzuki and David J. Wheatcroft and Michael Griesser}, year={2017} }