Scientists have discovered a talent never seen outside of humans in a small Australian bird: the ability to string sounds together to convey different meanings. Essentially, "it's a very basic form of word generation," researcher Andy Russell tells the BBC. The team started out by listening to chestnut-crowned babbler birds. Rather than sing, they produce "discrete calls made up of smaller, acoustically distinct individual sounds," an expert says in a press release. Two sounds, identified as "A" and "B," kept getting repeated. For example, the birds used an "AB" call to tell other birds where they were while in flight (listening birds would look to the sky), while a "BAB" call told chicks it was feeding time (listening birds would look at nests). Rearranging the sounds of the flight call to produce the latter call showed no alteration in the birds' behavior, and vice versa, proving the individual sounds were in fact the same.
"Although the two babbler bird calls are structurally very similar, they are produced in totally different behavioral contexts and listening birds are capable of picking up on this," a researcher explains. Russell adds, per the Christian Science Monitor, the babblers may communicate this way because it's easier to swap existing sounds than make up new ones. What's perhaps most fascinating is that researchers believe the birds' "B" sound differentiates the meaning of the call. In other words, it's the "c" that discerns the words "cat" and "at" in the English language. Such distinguishing elements are called phonemes, and this basic example "might help us understand how the ability to generate new meaning initially evolved in humans," an expert says. "It could be that when phoneme structuring first got off the ground in our hominid ancestors, this is the form it initially took." Russell says the ability likely exists in other animals. (Learn why these "bachelor" birds could save their species.)