Archive for Animal communication

Animal training

Rachel Premack, "Watch: This orangutan is uprooting what we previously knew about language", Washington Post 7/28/2016:

At first glance, this video of an orangutan imitating a trainer’s grunts may not seem incredibly significant. But primate researchers say Rocky, the 11-year-old orangutan in the video, could fundamentally alter how we think about spoken language.

“We don’t know exactly how human language emerged, but we do know that great apes have the cognitive ability to understand language,” said Robert Shumaker, executive vice president and zoo director at the Indianapolis Zoo. “We can no longer say that humans are the only species who can learn new vocalization and control [it] using the vocal folds or voice box.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (8)

Parrot as witness?

Peter Holley, "Foul-mouthed parrot may be used as evidence in murder trial, prosecutor says", WaPo 6/26/2016:

Family members believe Bud, an African gray parrot, may have witnessed the shooting that left Martin Duram dead and his wife severely injured.  

They believe this because the bird’s latest phrase — the one he won’t stop shouting at the top of his lungs mimicking his owner’s voice — is a chilling one: “Don’t f—ing shoot!”  

Duram’s body was found near his wife, who suffered a gunshot wound to her head but is alive. Although police initially assumed she was a victim of the shooting, police reports obtained by WOOD-TV revealed that she eventually became a suspect in the slaying. […]

Relatives told the station that they think Martin Duram’s final moments were imprinted in the bird’s memory and that he continues to relive the slaying. They noted that Bud mimicked both the victim and his wife.


Comments (20)

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:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (25)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (2)

"Vocalization Dictionary" of Mongolian herders

Comments (6)


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

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (19)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (24)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

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. […]

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (6)