Archive for Animal communication

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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Dolphins using personal names, again

As we have frequently noted here on Language Log, science stories on the BBC News website are (how to put this politely?) not always of prize-winning standard with respect to originality, timeliness, reliability, or attention to the relevant literature. In fact some of them show signs of being written by kids in junior high school. Way back in 2006 Mark Liberman commented on a BBC News story about the notion that dolphins have and use "names" for each other. He expressed skepticism, but the BBC forged ahead without paying any heed, and today, more than seven years later, we learn from the same BBC site once again that Dolphins 'call each other by name'. Yes, it's the same story, citing the same academic at the University of St Andrews, Dr Vincent Janik. (Mark's link in 2006 was unfortunately to a Google search on {Janik, dolphins}, which today brings up the current stories rather than the ones he was commenting on then.) And you don't need to leave the BBC page to see that the story contradicts itself.

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Finch song learning in the news again

Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist, "From the mouth of babes and birds", NYT 6/29/2013:

Researchers who focus on infant language and those who specialize in birdsong have teamed up in a new study suggesting that learning the transitions between syllables — from “da” to “do” and “do” to “da” — is the crucial bottleneck between babbling and speaking.

“We’ve discovered a previously unidentified component of vocal development,” said the lead author, Dina Lipkind, a psychology researcher at Hunter College in Manhattan. “What we’re showing is that babbling is not only to learn sounds, but also to learn transitions between sounds.”

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Sea Bay Restaurant

Thomas Lumley sent in this nice multilingual pun from Sydney, Australia:

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Elephant imitates Korean

Stoeger et al., "An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech", Current Biology (2012):

Vocal imitation has convergently evolved in many species, allowing learning and cultural transmission of complex, conspecific sounds, as in birdsong. Scattered instances also exist of vocal imitation across species, including mockingbirds imitating other species or parrots and mynahs producing human speech. Here, we document a male Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) that imitates human speech, matching Korean formants and fundamental frequency in such detail that Korean native speakers can readily understand and transcribe the imitations. To create these very accurate imitations of speech formant frequencies, this elephant (named Koshik) places his trunk inside his mouth, modulating the shape of the vocal tract during controlled phonation. This represents a wholly novel method of vocal production and formant control in this or any other species. One hypothesized role for vocal imitation is to facilitate vocal recognition by heightening the similarity between related or socially affiliated individuals. The social circumstances under which Koshik’s speech imitations developed suggest that one function of vocal learning might be to cement social bonds and, in unusual cases, social bonds across species.

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Benjamin Franklin medal for Labov

Recently announced, a 2013 Benjamin Franklin Medal for William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania. The citation:

For establishing the cognitive basis of language variation and change through rigorous analysis of linguistic data, and for the study of non-standard dialects with significant social and cultural implications.

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The bee rumble

I missed this when it came out — Virgina Morell, "Elephants Have an Alarm Call for Bees", Science Now 4/26/2011:

East Africa’s elephants face few threats in their savanna home, aside from humans and lions. But the behemoths are terrified of African bees, and with good reason. An angry swarm can sting elephants around their eyes and inside their trunks and pierce the skin of young calves. Now, a new study shows that the pachyderms utter a distinctive rumble in response to the sound of bees, the first time an alarm call has been identified in elephants.

… [T]he study suggests that this alarm call isn’t just a generalized vocalization but means specifically, “Bees!” says Lucy King, a postgraduate zoologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and the study’s lead author.

When they hear buzzing bees, the pachyderms turn and run away, shaking their heads while making a call that King terms the “bee rumble."

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