APRIL 11, 2019
Cooperative breeding may facilitate the development of sophisticated communicative abilities such as intentionality and joint attention skills. Two new studies of researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the University of Osnabrück provide the first evidence that a cooperatively breeding bird species (Arabian babblers) demonstrates distinct hallmarks of joint-attentional skills, which have been traditionally ascribed to humans only. This result also shows that an ape-like cognitive system is not a necessary pre-condition for joint-attention skills.
Humans' cooperation and communication strongly rely on the ability to intentionally coordinate attention with conspecifics, a socio-cognitive capacity termed joint attention. The development of these skills is a fundamental milestone in the ontogeny of human communication with earliest signs being already present in the first years of life. "For example, when my 18-months-old son wants me to follow him to a certain location", said Yitzchak Ben Mocha, the leading author of the two studies, "he calls me, waves his hands to attract my attention, starts to move into the desired direction, and frequently looks back to check my behaviour. He also elaborates his soliciting behaviour and returns to re-engage me in case I am too lazy to cooperate". Such intentional coordination of attention has been traditionally regarded as uniquely human. Some scholars even see it as the "small difference that made a big difference" in the evolution of our species' social cognition.