Postgraduate Profiles

Sarah Walsh

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Thesis: Investigating Combinatoriality in Western Australian magpies: Experimental Analysis, Ontogeny and the Role of Sociality

I am broadly interested in vocal communication in animals with a specific interest in combinatoriality. I have previously looked into the acoustic structure of call combinations in the Western Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen dorsalis), finding potential for compositional structuring. My current work is a continuation of this previous research and will focus on empirically verifying compositional structure, determining the role of sociality, and investigating the ontogeny of call combinations.

Why my research is important

The evolution of human language is difficult to study, predominantly due to the lack of fossil evidence that would offer insight into selective conditions leading to the development of central features, such as syntax. Recent studies indicate the non-hierarchical combinations observed in language can be fruitfully compared to simple call combinations observed in animal vocal communication. In line with this concept, it is clear that combinatoriality exists across several distantly related species (avian and mammalian), potentially indicating that similar combinatorial mechanisms have evolved independently. Such findings reject the theory of an evolutionary jump to human language, but rather suggest the manifestation of language may be the result of several individually evolved traits (i.e. language represents the bringing together of multiple forms of combinatoriality). Further research into animal combinatoriality will help to reveal a clearer picture of the selective pressures promoting the evolution of communication, and therefore language.