This is a Japanese tit looking for snakes when hearing specific alarm calls.Credit: Kyoto University / Toshitaka Suzuki
Watch out! Snake! The moment you hear this, you cannot help but imagine a slithering creature, as your body prepares for a possible attack. In human conversation, hearing a particular word (eg “snake”) can cause a listener to retrieve a specific mental image, even if there is nothing in the field of vision.
This cognition was once thought to be unique to humans. Now it turns out that songbirds have a similar ability.
A new study in PNAS reveals that a small songbird, the Japanese tit (Parus minor), can retrieve a visual image of a predator from specific alarm calls, providing the first evidence that nonhuman animals can ‘see’ a reference to certain vocalizations.
“The Japanese tit produces particular alarm calls when, and only when, encountering a predatory snake,” explains Toshitaka Suzuki at the Center for Ecological Research, Kyoto University, and author of this study.
Toshitaka N. Suzuki. Alarm calls evoke a visual search image of a predator in birds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018; 201718884 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1718884115