Universiteit Leiden

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Carel ten Cate

Professor emeritus of Animal Behaviour

Prof.dr. C.J. ten Cate
+31 71 527 5040

I am professor emeritus of Animal Behaviour. I study a broad range of topics in Animal Behaviour and Animal Cognition, but have a prime interest in the development and processing of vocalizations in birds. In comparative research I examine similarities and differences between avian vocalizations and human speech, language and musicality.

More information about Carel ten Cate

Brief biography

I obtained my PhD at the University of Groningen (NL) with a study on the development of sexual preferences in birds. Behavioural development (imprinting, song learning) and vocal communication in birds were the topics of two subsequent postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Cambridge (UK), a brief appointment at Utrecht University (NL) and of my Senior Research Fellowship of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, again at Groningen University. Thereafter I moved to Leiden to take up the chair in Animal Behaviour (Ethology). 

I serve/served on the editorial board of several journals and am/was council member of various national and international scientific organizations. At Leiden University I served as Scientific Director of the Institute of Biology and as Director of Education in Biology. I am also affiliated with the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition (LIBC).


My core research is on animal communication and cognition. I am particularly interested in the cognitive mechanisms involved in the learning and processing of vocal and visual signals in species ranging from birds and fish to humans. This includes comparative research on auditory perception and auditory pattern learning in animals (in particular birds) and humans.

Many projects involve collaboration with linguists, psychologists and others and are at the interface of biology, cognitive science, psychology and linguistics. They aim at providing insights in the biological origins and mechanisms of human linguistic rule learning, language development, speech perception, musicality and the neural bases of these processes. Most studies are supported by external funding from various sources.

I was editor of the book ‘Avian Cognition’ together with my colleague Susan Healy (University of StAndrews, UK). In this book, a range of experts from all over the world provide first-hand insights into the full range of avian cognitive abilities, the mechanisms behind them and how they are linked to the ecology of the species. Click here for more information.

Current research themes

The perception of conspecific vocalizations and human speech by birds

Human speech perception requires the rapid processing and categorization of speech sounds and their identification irrespective of speaker variability. It has been suggested that the processing of speech sounds in humans is enabled by the presence of specialized speech perception mechanisms (the ‘speech is special’ hypothesis) that evolved in consort with the evolution of language. We examine whether birds are able to discriminate, categorize and generalize vocalizations ranging from conspecific ones (songs) to various speech or speech-like sounds and how this relates to mechanisms involved in human auditory and speech perception. This involves both behavioural and neurogenomic studies. These are done, among others,  in collaborative projects within the NWO-Gravity consortium ‘Language in Interaction’.

Current PhD students

Animal grammatical abilities

The complexity of human language structure has given rise to fundamental questions regarding the nature and evolutionary origin of this complexity: To what extent does language structure deviate from the vocal communication signals of non-human animals? Are the computational and learning mechanisms that guide learning about language structure special and specific to language or humans? These questions have in common that addressing them requires adequate knowledge of the relevant abilities of non-human animals, of which our understanding is still limited. Studies on these abilities use various approaches. One is to focus on the structure of species specific vocalizations and to compare the syntax of animal vocalizations with that of language. Another one is to focus on the perceptual and processing abilities more generally, by experiments using ‘artificial grammar learning’ (AGL) that assess what types of patterns or grammar rules animals can detect in artificially prepared string sets. We are using both approaches in a range of studies on birds and primates. Many of these are in collaboration with linguists and others. External funding for these projects is provided by NWO (GW) and other organizations.

Current PhD students

What are the musical abilities of birds?

Rhythm perception, the perceptual grouping of different notes as belonging together, and melody recognition are universal features of human musicality and form the basis for our appreciation and production of music. But are these traits unique to humans, and where do they come from? By comparative studies on various aspects of musicality we address what type of patterns birds can detect in musical stimuli and how this relates to human perception of such stimuli. This work is done in collaboration with Prof Dr Henkjan Honing (University of Amsterdam) .


  • 2022: Honorary member - Dutch Society for Behavioural Biology
  • 2017:  NIAS-Lorentz Theme Group Fellowship
  • 2007: Visiting Professor, Psychology, Newcastle University, UK
  • 2007: Fellow, Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and Humanities (NIAS)
  • 1999: Elected Honorary Fellow, American Ornithologists’ Union 
  • 1988: Niko Tinbergen Preiss, German Ethological Society

Outreach & In the news

I have written several popular articles about my own work and related subjects. Every year I give talks for larger non-scientific audiences on various topics, at science festivals, HOVO-courses, Studium Generale and other events. I regularly contribute to radio- and television programs and get interviewed for newspapers, journals and popular magazines about our own work or other animal behaviour studies.


Professor emeritus of Animal Behaviour

  • Science
  • Instituut Biologie Leiden
  • IBL Animal Sciences

Work address

Sylviusweg 72
2333 BE Leiden
Room number 7.4.19




  • No relevant ancillary activities
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