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Cate, C.J. ten

Cate, C.J. ten

Carel ten Cate, born in Groningen, the Netherlands, in 1953. Ph.D. from the University of Groningen. Professor of Animal Behaviour at Leiden University.

Lorentz Fellow (1 February 2007 – 30 June 2007)


Understanding the evolutionary origin of the faculty of language is one of the greatest challenges in science. One approach to examine this origin is the comparative one: how do different features of language relate to vocal communication in other animals? Such comparative studies must be based on a solid foundation of relevant knowledge of vocal communication in other animal species. The aim of my project was to contribute to this foundation by reviewing the scientific literature on the topics of vocal learning by imitation in animals, and on the syntax of bird songs. I wrote a review on vocal learning in birds and mammals, addressing the different processes that might produce such learning, and challenging the current view of ‘vocal imitation’ as the prominent learning process. I also traced and used older as well as recent literature to compile a comparative overview of song structures for a large range of bird species. In spite of the huge variety in vocal structures, there seem to be some general organizational (‘syntax’) principles common to many if not all species. The material will form the basis for at least one paper and some future projects. I finished and contributed to some other papers on the development and evolution of animal communication signals.