Archive for Animal communication

Cat phonetics

Several people have asked me about an item that appeared this morning on the BBC's Breakfast on Sunday show, "Making sense of moggie meows":

Phonetics specialists at Lund University in Sweden hope to have cracked the feline code by the year 2021, to be able to interpret a whole range of 'meowings' and 'purrings'.

Susanne Schotz, Associate Professor of Phonetics at the University, said "about 90%" of the meows are likely to be cries for human attention, but that the study may allow us to learn how our dialects might affect our cat's own accent.  

Ms Schotz said she hopes learning to understand cats better will help provide a better way of life for our feline friends as well as aiding vets and other people who work with cats professionally.

A 3/10/2016 Lund University press release includes this YouTube video:

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Bird syntax again

Toshitaka N. Suzuki, David Wheatcroft & Michael Griesser, "Experimental evidence for compositional syntax in bird calls", Nature Communications 2016:

Human language can express limitless meanings from a finite set of words based on combinatorial rules (i.e., compositional syntax). Although animal vocalizations may be comprised of different basic elements (notes), it remains unknown whether compositional syntax has also evolved in animals. Here we report the first experimental evidence for compositional syntax in a wild animal species, the Japanese great tit (Parus minor). Tits have over ten different notes in their vocal repertoire and use them either solely or in combination with other notes. Experiments reveal that receivers extract different meanings from ‘ABC’ (scan for danger) and ‘D’ notes (approach the caller), and a compound meaning from ‘ABC–D’ combinations. However, receivers rarely scan and approach when note ordering is artificially reversed (‘D–ABC’). Thus, compositional syntax is not unique to human language but may have evolved independently in animals as one of the basic mechanisms of information transmission.

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"Vocalization Dictionary" of Mongolian herders

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Springtime

Today's SMBC, oddly out of phase with the seasons, starts this way:

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The moos you can moo

Geoff Pullum, always forthright, looks at some typical journalistic anthropomorphisms about animal communication and calls them "lies" ("Now it's cows that use names (sigh)", LLOG 12/20/2014):

The bottom line is that when it comes to language, journalists simply make stuff up. They are shockingly careless in all sorts of ways (in accuracy of quotations, for example, as Mark has pointed out many times), but when it comes to animal language it's far worse than that. They actually print what are obviously lies, even when the text of the same article makes it clear that they are lying.

I was curious about the background of this case, which as Geoff notes is a particular instance of a generic class of untruths, so I looked into it a bit more closely.

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Now it's cows that use names (sigh)

According to a sub-headline in Full-Time Whistle, new scientific research has shown that "Cows and their calves communicate using individualised calls equivalent to human names."

How interesting. Cows have enough linguistic sophistication to employ the high-level device of personal naming? Let us delve into the details just a little, without moving away from the article itself.

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The chick(en) says ko-ko-de(k)

In Incredible Things, Brittany High has a very brief article entitled "This Chinese Music Video Is Every Kind Of WTF".  I think that, if you watch the video, you'll agree with her.

Brittany writes:

This is a batshit insane music video for the song “Chick Chick” by Chinese pop group Wang Rong Rollin. It makes stuff like “What Does The Fox Say?” seem absolutely tame. I don’t know what the hell I just watched but I’ll have whatever they’re having.

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Names of Chinese birds

If you are a birder, you are in for a treat.  If you are a bird watcher who is particularly fond of Chinese species, you are in for a double treat.

Craig Brelsford is a writer and editor living in Shanghai, China. Mr. Brelsford is currently creating the world's first photographic field guide to the birds of China. To that end, he travels constantly throughout the vast territory of China.

His peregrinations have taken him to 31 of the 34 provincial-level entities in China researching his field guide.  As even the briefest of visits to his blog will attest, Mr. Brelsford is one serious birder.

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No dawn for ape-language theory

As you know, I serve Language Log as occasional film reviewer. I reported on Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it came out (see "Caesar and the power of No", August 14, 2011). So I naturally went to see the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, to report on the way the franchise was developing its view of how apes evolve language. Well, forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the film is supposed to be science fiction, and I have to say that the linguistic science is crap.

I left the cinema half stunned by the visual effects (which are absolutely terrific — worth the price of admission) and half deafened by the soundtrack and Michael Giacchino's bombastic score, but thoroughly disappointed at the inconsistent muddle of the way apes' linguistic powers were portrayed.

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A dog's life

Charles McFarlane, "A Dog’s Life: A Brief History of the Turnspit Dog", Modern Farmer 6/13/2014:

Today we think of working dogs as intelligent and loving creatures that are capable of amazing things — like detecting the presence of cancer through smell — but this is only a recent development in the human relationship with dogs. Little more than 150 years ago, dogs were hardly considered anything more than a power source.  

At the center of this was the turnspit dog. […]

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African elephants may have human-specific alarm calls

Joseph Soltis et al., "African Elephant Alarm Calls Distinguish between Threats from Humans and Bees", PLoSOne 2/26/2014:

The Samburu pastoralists of Northern Kenya co-exist with African elephants, Loxodonta africana, and compete over resources such as watering holes. Audio playback experiments demonstrate that African elephants produce alarm calls in response to the voices of Samburu tribesmen. When exposed to adult male Samburu voices, listening elephants exhibited vigilance behavior, flight behavior, and produced vocalizations (rumbles, roars and trumpets). Rumble vocalizations were most common and were characterized by increased and more variable fundamental frequencies, and an upward shift in the first [F1] and second [F2] formant locations, compared to control rumbles. When exposed to a sequence of these recorded rumbles, roars and trumpets, listening elephants also exhibited vigilance and flight behavior. The same behavior was observed, in lesser degrees, both when the roars and trumpets were removed, and when the second formants were artificially lowered to levels typical of control rumbles. The “Samburu alarm rumble” is acoustically distinct from the previously described “bee alarm rumble.” The bee alarm rumbles exhibited increased F2, while Samburu alarm rumbles exhibited increased F1 and F2, compared to controls. Moreover, the behavioral reactions to the two threats were different. Elephants exhibited vigilance and flight behavior in response to Samburu and bee stimuli and to both alarm calls, but headshaking behavior only occurred in response to bee sounds and bee alarm calls. In general, increasingly threatening stimuli elicited alarm calls with increases in F0 and in formant locations, and increasing numbers of these acoustic cues in vocal stimuli elicited increased vigilance and flight behavior in listening elephants. These results show that African elephant alarm calls differentiate between two types of threat and reflect the level of urgency of threats.

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No More Woof

That's the name of a proposed product from the "Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery". It combines two surefire memes, brain waves and dog language,  claiming to be "the first device to translate animal thoughts into human language".

You will have your choice of vocal personalities, with names like "Holly", "Harley", "Pudge", "Mandy", and so on:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

There's a video, too.

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Marmoset conversation

This is a guest post by Margaret Wilson.


Turn-taking is fundamental to human conversation, so the question of whether it occurs in other social animals is extremely interesting. A new paper on turn-taking in marmoset monkeys (Takahashi et al., "Coupled Oscillator Dynamics of Vocal Turn-Taking in Monkeys", Current Biology, 2013) is to be applauded for tackling this issue.

Unfortunately, though, it is not clear that their data demonstrate turn-taking in any sophisticated sense: specifically (and this is the sense embraced by the authors), entrainment of timing mechanisms between two individuals to regulate the passing of the turn. They begin by asking, "Is this a simple call-and-response (‘‘antiphonal’’) behavior seen in numerous species, or is it a sustained temporal coordination of vocal exchanges as in human conversation?" They conclude that they have shown the latter, but, on my reading, all their data is compatible with simple call-and-response. What seems to be going on is that the authors have failed to appreciate just how weird human turn-taking is.

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