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From mewing to singing and imitating human speech, the animal world is home to all sorts of communication ...
2021-05-31 09:00:00

Chatty Nature
Communication in the Animal World

Chatty Nature

Psychologists claim that singing to babies gives them a lifetime of mental fortitude and strengthens their emotional bond with their parents. We still pale in comparison with zebra finches, who – by singing to their eggs – instruct their future chicks whether they are to be large or small, and how quickly they should grow.

Read in 15 minutes

Almost all land-based vertebrates make sounds. A cat meows when it wants to attract attention, chirps involuntarily while observing birds on the balcony, and purrs when it wants the stroking to continue. Cows moo, sheep bleat, hens cluck and snakes hiss. Even Zygmunt the Russian tortoise – who has been living at my home for almost 30 years and is usually rather introverted – grunts passionately while making love to his favourite pot in the spring. But the meaning of these sounds can vary greatly. No matter how much I like Zygmunt, I doubt that he’s fully in control of the sounds he’s making in that situation (let him who is without sin cast the first stone), but the female cat who shares our flat definitely tries to communicate something to me.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Some animal noises have no social significance. If experiencing strong and unexpected pain, animals yelp or whine even when they’re alone – just like when we smash a hammer into our thumb, we use four-letter words even though there’s nobody around (probably all the more readily and loudly if we’re alone). Of course when we’re not alone, the sounds of our suffering will attract someone to help us, so even involuntary noises are a form of communication in gregarious animals such as wolves or humans, which is why evolution has preserved them in us. Utterances can also work outside of individual species. A snake, crocodile or lizard will hiss in warning at any potential enemy, just like a dog will growl at another dog, as well as at a human or a dangerous-looking cauliflower.

But although scientists haven’t been able to find another species apart from us whose system of communication could be called a bona fide language, some of the ways animals communicate are astonishing in their complexity and the level of detail in the information they pass on. Examples can sometimes be found in the most unexpected candidates.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Advice through the shell

Justin Gregg’s fascinating book Are Dolphins Really Smart? starts by enumerating the described animals’ amazing cognitive, social and communication skills. The list begins with the ability to recognize specific members, even of groups numbering more than 100 individuals, along with their position in the complicated social structure. Later, we find information about how the animals teach each other, what their culture is like, how they feel and demonstrate empathy, call others in for meals – with the different types of food available and various looming dangers signified by separate sounds – and about how other group members react differently depending on these sounds. We also learn that the animals in question can display self-control and predict the future: they give up on an immediate prize if they can expect a larger one a moment later. At the very end we read, in astonishment, that this impressive list is not about dolphins at all, but good old chickens. It is a known fact that they do not always cluck involuntarily. These cunning schemers can, for example, withhold warnings when a hawk is flying over the hen house and a disliked rival is standing out in the open, unaware of the danger.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that similar behaviours haven’t been observed in dolphins – at least part of that list could be about them, too. Still, the more we know about seemingly very familiar animals, the more they can impress us.

This is what happened with the above-mentioned zebra finches. These birdies, smaller than sparrows and popular with breeders and scientists, live in Australia. They are known for the males’ colourful feathers and for the vocal abilities of both genders, which usually mate for life. The zebra finch song has been studied for a long time. As is the case with many birds (and not only birds), the male is colourful, talkative and a bit bigger than his partner. The females don’t really have time for showing off, because they have to handle more important things – they mainly take care of the eggs. Although these birds have already been extensively studied, in 2016 Mylene Mariette from Deakin University in Australia discovered a new element of their vocal repertoire: a sound that brooding zebra finches were making, but only when the ambient temperature exceeded 25°C. It turned out that their young hatched smaller than others and grew more slowly, which increased their chances of surviving the heat as it facilitated thermoregulation. In a series of careful experiments, Mariette and her supervisor Kate Buchanan proved that it was this new sound that influenced the development of the avian embryos, and not, for example, the temperature itself (the eggs were transported to temperature-controlled incubators where some of them were played the new sounds and some were not). We don’t know exactly what sort of mechanism is at play here, but it seems clear that when the parents sense a higher temperature, they are able to instruct their young to develop in a way better suited to their environmental conditions. In addition, the chicks that heard the forecast of scorching heat through their shell looked for warmer spots almost a year later, when they themselves started nesting; if the heat continued, they instructed their offspring on how to develop. They definitely passed on the knowledge they learned before hatching. The scientists sum up that this uncanny phenomenon may, in the future, help zebra finches adjust to climate change.

Recognizing your child’s voice

We still know very little about animals. It has been known for a long time that precocial species (i.e., birds such as landfowl, geese and ducks, whose chicks can take care of themselves from the moment they hatch) can hear their parents’ voices through the shell of their egg and learn to recognize them. But the discovery of ‘embryo education’ in altricial species – who require parental care for longer – only happened in the past few years and is a completely new area of future research. Apart from zebra finches, it has only been found in superb fairywrens: they teach their unhatched children special sounds that will, in the future, perform the function of secret passwords that let parents differentiate their own offspring from a cuckoo’s imposter baby.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Recognizing the voices of one’s own young is common in nature, especially among animals that live in large colonies. For some, such as penguins, the parents’ and children’s voices are the only thing allowing the family to find and identify each other. It is impressive that, on their return from the sea, penguins are able to find their offspring among hundreds of thousands of identical penguin babies, and chicks recognize mum and dad’s voices in a huge crowd of adults. However, I think that these birds would be at least just as impressed by our ability to recognize human faces. Only we are under the impression that all penguins sound the same. But you need only think of the difficulties that we ourselves face when identifying people from far away. My friend from Hong Kong once told me that where she lives, people don’t really notice the colour of European hair. For us, hair colour is such an obvious distinguishing feature that it might be hard to believe, but where she lives everyone’s hair is black, so they instinctively pay attention to other features and must learn how to notice whether someone’s hair is red, blond or dark. Everything depends on the ability to learn identifying signals. And in some animals, those are truly astounding.

On hearing the word ‘seal’, many readers probably imagine a creature with a ball on its nose, jumping around briskly in a circus arena while grunting hilariously. Incidentally, I hope that this image is getting fainter and fainter in the collective consciousness, because the circus is not an appropriate place for animals. Either way, these clever acrobats are not true seals, but representatives of the family Otariidae (or eared seals) – the other big pinniped family. It encompasses sea lions and fur seals. All of them – unlike true seals, which can only crawl on land like huge caterpillars – can run, have visible external ears and are covered with very thick fur. Otariids usually live in enormous colonies, and it usually falls only to the females to take care of the young, so they must be able to locate their pups after every trip to sea. The mechanism of this has been studied most extensively in New Zealand fur seals. During the many months before the young wean, mothers alternate staying with them and going on two- or three-week-long hunting expeditions. Because each mother only feeds her own pup, recognizing it in the crowd after a period of separation is a question of life or death. As it turns out, mothers learn their offspring’s voice only a few hours after its birth, while pups can differentiate their mother’s voice from thousands of other females within a few days. Recent studies claim that pups can recognize certain parameters of their mother’s voice from even 60 metres away, although that space can contain hundreds of very talkative individuals. (Imagine that we could hear and identify each other across a bustling farmer’s market.) As the distance decreases, other characteristics of the sounds they both make – inaudible over larger distances – facilitate precise recognition. Once the mother and pup finally meet, they ascertain each other’s identity via smell.

However, during the few weeks of the mother’s absence, her pup grows, so its voice changes, too. Some tones disappear, while others take over. It turns out that fur seal mamas are able to flexibly adjust to these changes. What’s more, they remember their child’s voice over all the stages of its development, and react to recordings of their own newborn even a year later, ignoring the voices of all other babies.

When a parrot calls you uncle

It is easiest to observe the process of learning new sounds in animals that engage in sound imitation. In that respect, probably the biggest and best-known star in Poland is the starling. I remember my own confusion when, as a child commuting to school, I would hear the clear sound of the bus braking and opening its door from a nearby tree. The starling family who lived there included that very familiar, albeit unnatural sound into its everyday repertoire. I also once heard a starling that must have lived near a kitchen widow, because it learned to mimic the whistle of a steam kettle.

However, starlings can’t hold a candle to lyrebirds – the way they imitate the sound of a camera shutter can confuse even a photographer, who will start looking around for competition skulking in the bushes.

The skills of myna birds and parrots are even more amazing. A male grey parrot called Alex was the indisputable master of sound imitation. His name was an acronym of the Avian Language Experiment led at Harvard University by Irene Pepperberg, who studied animal cognitive skills. Alex found it easy to learn new English words, could even tell his carer that he loved her, and wished her goodnight after every long day. So at least some animals can not only easily imitate the sounds they hear, but are also able to comprehend the meaning of some words, or at least the context in which they’re supposed to be used. I myself once met a male grey parrot who would, on seeing me, announce that the ‘new uncle’ was here. Alex even made practical use of his skills: they enabled him to exercise a certain level of control over his life, for example, by successfully asking to be given his favourite toys. According to Pepperberg, the unique throat musculature of large parrots and a stiff but mobile tongue make imitating human speech exceptionally easy for them. At the same time, numerous studies of their cognitive skills have shown that these birds are very intelligent, which lets them easily remember the sounds they learn. Alex was so popular that when he died in 2007 (at 31), fans mourned him all around the world.

It is not only birds that can imitate our voices, and perhaps the animals for which it isn’t that easy deserve more admiration. In 2010, a recording was made at the zoo in Cologne, Germany, of a female orangutan called Tilda, who was rumoured to have learned to whistle like a human. As it turned out, Tilda could do much more: she clapped, smacked her lips and uttered guttural sounds similar to human speech. But orangutans are our close relatives, and their voice boxes are quite similar to ours, although they do differ in many significant, small ways. Other mammals must come up with more inventive mechanisms.

In 2012, the media reported on a uniquely talented elephant called Koshik. He would put the end of his own trunk into his mouth, and manipulate his vocal cords in a way that allowed him to successfully mimic the words of his Korean carers. Even more astonishing, however, are belukha whales: NOC, who lived in Vancouver, and Nack, kept in Japan. Belukhas have neither a mouth nor a trunk, but while blowing into their nasal tract in a controlled way, they can utter sounds that are deceptively similar to those of human speech.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Why do they do it? There’s something all these animals have in common. They are all gregarious and in captivity; deprived of the company of their peers, they’re limited to human guardians. Hence, they imitate sounds that they recognize as a form of social communication. Sometimes it’s about play, but it’s more likely that the point is to strengthen the bond they have with their human friends. In the wild, these skills are useful, for example, when they join a new pod and want to learn its specific dialect. Erich Jarvis from Duke University claims that this can also be a way to find a mate – just like in humans showing off their erudition at the pub.

The dog that knew 1000 words

Sound imitation is undoubtedly necessary for learning a language. It is thanks to this skill that we learn all words – from ‘a’ to ‘mamihlapinatapai’ (a word in the Yaghan language that means ‘the look exchanged between two people who both want the other to initiate something both of them want, but neither wants to begin’). But mere imitation is not enough to have a chat with someone. You need to understand words, too, and use them in their proper context.

Everyone who lives with a dog knows that a dog will understand many of our words. Cats – although at least just as intelligent – also presumably receive our commands, but simply do not give two hoots about them. However, for our understanding of how animals passively communicate not to be limited to anecdotal observations, more detailed and rigorous experiments are needed. In the past century, these studies were extended to very different groups of animals – and some of them displayed undoubtedly impressive skills. The above-mentioned Alex could remember over 150 keywords and associate them with appropriate objects. Rico, a border collie, recognized over 200 separate words, although he couldn’t imitate them; the same was the case for a male bonobo called Kanzi. It was found that it is easier to make contact with primates using graphic symbols and sign language. This also applies to dolphins – the greatest linguistic talents, such as Akeakamai and Phoenix, had no trouble recognizing up to 50 symbols and could correctly associate them with particular objects. Both them and primates such as bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas have displayed an understanding of the basic rules of syntax in various research projects. For example, when seeing a series of symbols such as ‘bring-ball-board’ they would bring the ball to the board, not the other way around. Some primates could even create new words, combining symbols meaning ‘water’ and ‘bird’ to describe a duck. But even the biggest star among non-human animals – a border collie called Chaser who learned how to flawlessly recognize 1022 words – knew an order (or two) of magnitude less than the average educated human.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Can we, then, speak of such a thing as animal language? Many species apart from us communicate, using various signals to designate various objects. It is observed in the above-mentioned chickens, but also chimpanzees, guenons and meerkats. Different signals are used for a dangerous snake and a hawk, and – depending on the information uttered – they provoke a different reaction in these animals. Dolphins have their personal whistles that could be compared to names, and individual orca families use separate dialects, meaning that representatives of different families have trouble understanding each other. Certain killer whales have even learned to imitate sounds made by other dolphins (orcas are the largest representatives of that family) and to interact with them for various purposes, from entertainment to feeding. Humpback whales, in turn, sing songs consisting of half-hour-long phrases that differ according to region and season, although in a given time and place everyone sings the same thing. But that is not enough for us to speak of language; other characteristics are also necessary, such as unlimited capacity for self-expression. And, according to our best knowledge, the absolute winners in that respect are eastern chipmunks: they are able to communicate information regarding the size, shape and even colour of objects, via the medium of complicated whistling sounds.

As far as I’m concerned, I’d be happiest to have a chat with a dolphin – they are some of my favourite animals, so I’d be thrilled if they turned out to be potential conversation partners. The fact of the matter is, however, that the common belief regarding dolphins’ cognitive skills and communication abilities is unfortunately very exaggerated. John Cunningham Lilly, who pioneered the research regarding their intelligence, was an unconventional scientist – to put it mildly. His experiments from the 1960s involved, for example, taking LSD and attempting to initiate contact with dolphins under its influence. I have no doubt that these attempts were successful. I remember several inspiring conversations I had with a friendly cactus 30 years ago in a similar state. However, despite dedicated research and ambitious plans, neither Lilly nor any of his successors managed to even approach formulating a human-dolphin dictionary. In reality – as David Neiwert emphasizes in his book Of Orcas and Men – a dispassionate analysis of the sounds made by separate individuals shows that they have a very limited range of about 40 sounds at their disposal. According to him, “[orcas’] conversations seem to look more or less like this: ‘Hey.’ ‘Hey.’ ‘Hey.’ ‘Hey.’ ‘I’m here.’ ‘I’m here.’ ‘Come here.’ ‘Hey.’ ‘Here.’ ‘Wait.’ ‘Fish.’ ‘Hey.’ ‘Hey.’”

This is probably a simplification. Undoubtedly, however, animal methods of communication differ so much from ours that sometimes it’s difficult to notice them. One of the more deeply-studied methods (although very different from that of humans) is the waggle dance of bees, in which they move in the shape of a flattened figure eight. As they move away from the worker bee being instructed, the number of times they bend their abdomen indicates the distance from the food source, water, or a new place for a nest. As they return, the direction from which they approach shows the angle between the target and the position of the sun. If the guide has been in the hive a bit longer, it modifies the direction to correct for the fact that the sun’s disc has moved in the sky.

Fishy conversations

Herring have a rather simple, but very original system of communication. These fish, who swim around in massive shoals, have no problem with keeping to their group during the day. Things get worse at night, when they can’t see. 2003 saw the publication of research which suggests that herring, who have better hearing than most fish, call to each other during the night with a series of high-pitched sounds made by the air leaving their anuses. These signals, officially called Fast Repetitive Ticks (FRT – surely no pun intended), do not only help the herring themselves, but also won their discoverers an Ig Nobel prize.

In other words, although attempts to find an animal language have recently lost some of their intensity, we may find out that nature does feature some complicated systems that we are simply not able to detect and understand.

This was already predicted by Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer imagined by Kurt Vonnegut. He once wrote a short story about an alien civilization that communicated via farting – almost like herring do – and tap dancing. A noble representative of that race once came to Earth to warn us about impending annihilation. But when he knocked at the door of the first house, its owner didn’t understand the strange guest – who was jumping around and farting excitedly – and simply shot him, condemning humanity to extinction. We can only hope we’re not making the same mistake. The animal world is full of mysteries that we have only just begun to glimpse. It’s possible that someone has been trying to tell us something for a long time, and we haven’t noticed.


Translated from the Polish by Marta Dziurosz

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Mikołaj Golachowski

is a polar explorer with a PhD in natural sciences, who spends four months every year in Antarctica and in the Arctic. Mikołaj writes about nature for both children and adults. His latest books are “Czochralem antarktycznego słonia” [I’ve Ruffled an Antarctic Elephant] (Marginesy, 2016) and “Gęby, dzioby i nochale” [Gobs, Beaks and Schnozzes] (Babaryba, 2016).