Animal communication

The fact that animals can communicate with each other is pretty obvious to anyone who has ever watched a pack of dogs or a group of farm cats interact, or listened to crows calling to each other in the treetops. But just how complex is animal communication? Can anything animals do to communicate with each other approximate human language?

The jury’s still out on that, but information presented at a major scientific conference in Chicago last week seems to indicate that the answer is “yes.”

The conference, titled “Animal Social Complexity and Intelligence” drew together animal behaviorists studying species ranging from parrots to whales. By bringing together scientists who worked on many different species and thus didn’t necessarily talk much together, conference organizers hoped to gain new insight into how animals communicate, learn their own “culture,” and maintain social order.

The findings presented at the conference were fascinating.

For instance, one scientist reported that sperm whales–the animals with the largest brains on Earth–have a female-dominated, egalitarian society similar to that of the African elephant. (You are welcome to draw your own inferences between having a large brain and having a female-dominated society. As a married man, I prefer not to!)

Another parallel between the species was that both communicate over vast distances. Elephants use extremely low tones that carry a long way, while whales generate clicks that can be as loud as a steel gate clanging shut and carry enormous distances through the water. Interestingly, it appears whales are talking louder because of the increased noise in the oceans from ships–just as humans talk louder in a noisy bar then on a quiet beach.

Another species of animal with a highly evolved brain is the dolphin. These graceful creatures have long fascinated us. They have a highly complex social life. For instance, male dolphins will form alliances in pairs and trios to herd females around for a month, then form larger groupings to steal females from other trios. (Dolphins have sex pretty indiscriminately with other dolphins, including dolphins of the same sex.)

To study dolphin communication, scientists attach electronic tags to the animals so they can quickly identify individuals, and tow microphones behind boats to record the dolphins’ conversations. According to one scientist, the recorded vocalizations show that they “bitch at each other a lot.”

More interestingly, however, it appears that each dolphin develops his or her own signature signal, which researcher Vincent Janik compares to an Internet screen name or handle. Janik studied wild bottlenose dolphins off Moray Firth, Scotland, recording 1,719 whistles in all. Each dolphin he studied made its own, distinctive whistle, which other dolphins would imitate in response, presumably to keep in touch. (Janik used human judges to determine if calls were identical, because computers aren’t up to the task yet.)

The dolphins also use a distinctive sound when they find food, a low-pitched noise that sounds very much like the braying of a donkey. When one dolphin utters this call, other dolphins rush in to feed.

Janik doesn’t like to call all this communication “language,” but he is willing to call it “a complex communication system,” and says its very similar to what scientists believe ancient humans’ first steps toward language would have resembled.

Dolphins are often studied in this field because of their intelligence; so are apes and monkeys, particularly chimpanzees, which some scientists consider to be our closest relatives among the animals. Among the studies presented at the conference is one that seems to indicate that “food barks” uttered by chimpanzees don’t only announce that they’ve found food, but provide some information as to the type and quality of the food found. Similarly, studies of monkeys have found that they utter cries that don’t just warn of predators, but tell their fellow monkeys what kind of predator to look out for. (A complementary study suggested that chimpanzees’ “food barks” are under conscious control; a researcher watched two chimpanzees cooperate with each other to catch, kill and eat a small monkey. They did so in complete silence, possibly because they were within vocal range of other chimpanzees and didn’t want them horning in on their lunch.)

Another study looked at chimpanzees’ ability to read facial expressions. Chimpanzees were shown short videos depicting positive and negative emotional events, then asked to select one of two facial expressions that conveyed an emotional meaning similar to that in the video. Without prompting, some of the chimps associated negative facial expressions (such as screams and bared teeth) with scenes such as veterinary procedures and injection needles, and positive facial expressions with scenes of favorite foods and objects, indicating that they can, indeed, inherently read facial expressions without being specifically trained to do so.

(Oh, and just to boost male egos a little in the wake of my previous comment about large-brained mammals preferring female-dominated societies, researchers have found among chimpanzees, its the females who hold grudges, while men make peace quickly. So there!)

Many chimpanzees have been taught American Sign Language, and others have been taught to work with abstract numbers. That may not seem too surprising in an animal so closely related to us, but other research presented at the conference indicated that even sea lions can work out complicated ideas such as “if A equals B, and B equals C, then A equals C.” In the wild, male sea lions will fight a male they have seen beaten by another that they in turn have beaten–essentially the same reasoning process.

Evolving research continues to show that our animal cousins are more sophisticated communicators, and have more sophisticated societies, then we normally give them credit for. So keep an eye on your pet: he may be trying to tell you something.

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