SciCombinator

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Concept: Japanese Tit

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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.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Conservation biology, Species, Bird, Linguistics, Great Tit, Parus, Japanese Tit

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The generative power of human language depends on grammatical rules, such as word ordering, that allow us to produce and comprehend even novel combinations of words [1-3]. Several species of birds and mammals produce sequences of calls [4-6], and, like words in human sentences, their order may influence receiver responses [7]. However, it is unknown whether animals use call ordering to extract meaning from truly novel sequences. Here, we use a novel experimental approach to test this in a wild bird species, the Japanese tit (Parus minor). Japanese tits are attracted to mobbing a predator when they hear conspecific alert and recruitment calls ordered as alert-recruitment sequences [7]. They also approach in response to recruitment calls of heterospecific individuals in mixed-species flocks [8, 9]. Using experimental playbacks, we assess their responses to artificial sequences in which their own alert calls are combined into different orderings with heterospecific recruitment calls. We find that Japanese tits respond similarly to mixed-species alert-recruitment call sequences and to their own alert-recruitment sequences. Importantly, however, tits rarely respond to mixed-species sequences in which the call order is reversed. Thus, Japanese tits extract a compound meaning from novel call sequences using an ordering rule. These results demonstrate a new parallel between animal communication systems and human language, opening new avenues for exploring the evolution of ordering rules and compositionality in animal vocal sequences.

Concepts: Evolution, Animal, Bird, Mammal, Word, Great Tit, Parus, Japanese Tit