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Study: Japanese great tits employ syntax

"The results lead to a better understanding of the underlying factors in the evolution of syntax," said researcher Michael Griesser.
By Brooks Hays   |   March 8, 2016 at 2:34 PM

TOKYO, March 8 (UPI) -- Syntax is the set of rules and principles that govern sentence structure and word order, allowing humans to communicate and derive meaning through and from language.

Previous research has shown birds and primates ascribe meaning to vocal elements, but until now, scientists haven't been able to identify a corollary to syntax among non-humans.

In a new study, an international team of evolutionary biologists reveal the use of syntactic rules by Japanese great tits, Parus minor, a passerine bird native to the Far East.

Japanese great tits, also known as Oriental tits, have rather large vocabulary. Researchers recently cataloged their calls and their meanings.

"ABC calls," for example, are used by the birds to warn of approaching predators, like a sparrowhawk. A bird wishing to call over a friend or mate to the nest or a new source of food generally uses a "D call." It translates to "get over here."

Used together in the form of ABC-D, the call inspires a joint effort to chase away an encroaching predator. When played recordings of the ABC-D call, Oriental tits become alarmed and flock in unison. Reverse the order of the call to D-ABC, and the birds ignore the meaningless sounds.

Scientists in Japan, Sweden and Switzerland say their findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, is proof that syntax is not exclusive to human language.

"The results lead to a better understanding of the underlying factors in the evolution of syntax," Michael Griesser, a researcher at the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Zurich, said in a news release. "Because the tits combine different calls, they are able to create new meaning with their limited vocabulary. That allows them to trigger different behavioral reactions and coordinate complex social interactions."

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