Archive for Animal communication

A new look at sperm whale communication

For as long as I can remember, I've been aware that whales, dolphins, porpoises, and other large mammals of the seas (the cetaceans) make whistles, clicks, calls, groans, songs, and other sounds / noises.  These vocalizations are manifestly complex and nuanced, leading people to believe that they are communicating content, emotions, and so forth.  What exactly they are conveying and how they do it have remained a mystery, but researchers never stop trying to figure out cetacean "language".  A new study at MIT claims to have made progress in analyzing sperm whale sound systems.

Scientists document remarkable sperm whale 'phonetic alphabet'
By Will Dunham, Reuters (May 7, 2024)
[with 2:58 video]

I was hesitant to read this article at all because of the mention of a "phonetic alphabet".  Even with the quotation marks around it, attributing this ability to sperm whales was a bit much for me.

Yet, since it was "scientists" doing the documenting, I forced myself to read the first two paragraphs:

The various species of whales inhabiting Earth's oceans employ different types of vocalizations to communicate. Sperm whales, the largest of the toothed whales, communicate using bursts of clicking noises – called codas – sounding a bit like Morse code.
A new analysis of years of vocalizations by sperm whales in the eastern Caribbean has found that their system of communication is more sophisticated than previously known, exhibiting a complex internal structure replete with a "phonetic alphabet." The researchers identified similarities to aspects of other animal communication systems – and even human language.

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The call / name of the gecko

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The cry of the cicada

Get ready!  They're coming, and they will make a huge amount of shrill, raucous NOISE.  They are most prevalent in the eastern half of the United States on a rolling basis for different regions, but this year, they will be positively overwhelming in the corridor from Northern Illinois to Arkansas and thence along the Southeast mountainous band stretching up to Virginia.

"Where billions of cicadas will emerge this spring (and over the next decade), in one map:  Cicadas will hear the call of spring. And then you’ll hear their mating calls, too."  By Brian Resnick, (1/23/24)

For 17 years, cicadas do very little. They hang out in the ground, sucking sugar out of tree roots. Then, following this absurdly long hibernation, they emerge from the ground, sprout wings, make a ton of noise, have sex, and die within a few weeks. Then, their orphan progeny return to the ground and live the next 17 years in silence. Rarer are the 13-year cicadas, which do the same, but in a little more of a hurry — spending just 13 years underground.

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Carrier pigeons between Taiwan, India, and Mount Ararat

Or, what makes a turtle a dove?

When I was teaching at Tunghai University from 1970-72, naturally I spent the bulk of my time in Taichung ("Tai Central"), but I would regularly visit my in-laws in Taipei ("Tai North"), 160 km to the north.  They lived in a part of the city that was situated midway between National Taiwan University and Taiwan Normal University, where there were still many grand, old, wooden Japanese-style houses.

There were lots of memorable happenings in those neighborhoods, but one which struck me to the core is when people who raised flocks of pigeons would let them out for a spin, so to speak.  The pigeons — a dozen or so (?) — would whir out of their dovecotes and flutter off into the sky in ever distancing gyres.  I would stand on the fourth floor roof of our new reinforced concrete building (the first in that part of the city) and watch them as long as I could.  Usually, however, I would lose track of them after several minutes.  Eventually, the flock would miraculously return and settle down on their perches and in their nests, cooing contentedly.

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Talking animals

Those whale vowels are on my to-blog list. But for now, please remember that talking animals can be dangerous — at least, this evening:

"Talking animals: Miracle or curse?", 12/24/2004
"Watch out for those talking animals tonight", 12/24/2013
"Trigger warning: Talking animals", 12/24/2015


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276 cat facial expressions?

Lauren Scott & Brittany Florkiewicz, "Feline Faces: Unraveling the Social Function of Domestic Cat Facial Signals", Behavioral Processes 2023:

ABSTRACT: Lately, there has been a growing interest in studying domestic cat facial signals, but most of this research has centered on signals produced during human-cat interactions or pain. The available research on intraspecific facial signaling with domesticated cats has largely focused on non-affiliative social interactions. However, the transition to intraspecific sociality through domestication could have resulted in a greater reliance on affiliative facial signals that aid with social bonding. Our study aimed to document the various facial signals that cats produce during affiliative and non-affiliative intraspecific interactions. Given the close relationship between the physical form and social function of mammalian facial signals, we predicted that affiliative and non-affiliative facial signals would have noticeable differences in their physical morphology. We observed the behavior of 53 adult domestic shorthair cats at CatCafé Lounge in Los Angeles, CA. Using Facial Action Coding Systems designed for cats, we compared the complexity and compositionality of facial signals produced in affiliative and non-affiliative contexts. To measure complexity and compositionality, we examined the number and types of facial muscle movements (AUs) observed in each signal. We found that compositionality, rather than complexity, was significantly associated with the social function of intraspecific facial signals. Our findings indicate that domestication likely had a significant impact on the development of intraspecific facial signaling repertoires in cats.

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How cats purr

The sound of a cat's purr is a familiar one:

But this familiar sound raises at least two interesting biophysical questions.

In the first place, cats purr both while breathing out and breathing in, while most people can only produce voiced sounds (= laryngeal oscillations) while breathing out. What do cats have or do that we don't have or do?

In the second place, cats' purring is much lower in pitch than we'd expect given their size.

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Elk topolects

Who would have thought?

Even North America’s Elk Have Regional Dialects

Why do Pennsylvania elk sound different from Colorado elk?

By Kylie Mohr, The Atlantic Monthly (July 16, 2023)


It’s a crisp fall evening in Grand Teton National Park. A mournful, groaning call cuts through the dusky-blue light: a male elk, bugling. The sound ricochets across the grassy meadow. A minute later, another bull answers from somewhere in the shadows.

Bugles are the telltale sound of elk during mating season. Now new research has found that male elks’ bugles sound slightly different depending on where they live. Other studies have shown that whale, bat, and bird calls have dialects of sorts too, and a team led by Jennifer Clarke, a behavioral ecologist at the Center for Wildlife Studies and a professor at the University of La Verne, in California, is the first to identify such differences in any species of ungulate.

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Sperm whale talk

Animal communication is not a favorite topic here at Language Log, but according to the following account, one project concerning it seems serious and is being conducted by credible scientists.  Although their claims for its ultimate significance may be inflated, I believe the research they are undertaking is worth considering, especially after hearing the clicks and codas of the sperm whales, which do appear to be communicating data.

Can Understanding Whale Speech Help Us Talk to Aliens?

Biologist David Gruber thinks decoding the language of whales could be just the first step in understanding what other lifeforms are saying—in this world and out of it.

Alexandra Marvar, The Daily Beast (5/13/23)

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So many words for "donkey"

Almost as many as Eskimo words for "snow".  (hee-hee haw-haw) (see below for a sampling)

I've always been a great admirer of donkeys, and I love to hear them bray and make all sorts of other expressive sounds, some of which I am incapable of adequately expressing in words — especially when they are being obdurately stubborn and are unwilling to move, no matter what.  Anyway, their vocabulary extends way beyond the basic "hee-haw":

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Garbler of spices

A couple of days ago, we had occasion to come to grips with the word "garble":  "Please do not feel confused" (8/19/22).  This led Kent McKeever to write as follows:

Your recent use of "garble" has prompted me to pass on something I recently stumbled on.  I have been poking at the digital files of the Newspapers of Eighteenth Century English newspapers and ran across a reference to the London city government position of "Garbler of Spices."  From the context, it seems to be an inspector, perhaps processor, of spice imports.  Totally new to me.

Totally new to me too.

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Cat got your tongue? Or do you have its?

[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

If you’re Japanese, chances are it’s the latter.

Nekojita (猫舌 lit. “cat’s tongue”) is a phrase in Japanese most commonly used to describe people who can’t or don’t like to eat or drink hot things. The word means both the actual tongue itself and, by extension, a person with a cat’s tongue. In other words, it is a synecdoche.

The term is common in Japan, reflecting the fact that many people consider themselves to be/have cat tongues; in a 2018 survey of 10,000 Japanese of all ages, about half described themselves as nekojita. The results are summed up in the accompanying image, in which pink indicates those who answered yes to the question, “Are you nekojita?” As you can see, more than half of 10-49-year-olds consider themselves to have heat-sensitive tongues.

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Cat huffing and snorting in Japanese and Chinese

Full disclosure:  I'm not an expert on felines, except sort of for Hello Kitty.  I've owned a lot of dogs, but have never had a kitty kat since the time I was a little boy.  I have a poor understanding of their psychology and behavior, although I very much like to observe them, especially when they're sleeping or sunning themselves, and I love to hear them purr.  Occasionally it's fun to pet them, and I like it when they walk around my legs, twirling / wrapping their tail as they go.

Here's a reddit thread from last fall:

Posted by u/Curious_Cilantro, Oct. 1, 2021

[Chinese] xīmāo 吸猫 – to zone out and enjoy the company of a cat, as if it were a drug. Lit. “snort/suck cat”

Example: After work, I just want to relax at home and xīmāo 吸猫 (enjoy my cat’s company).

It’s a new phrase mostly used by young people. Since snorting drugs is xīdú 吸毒,and cats are so charismatic, appreciating their company is like snorting a drug that helps you relax.

A variation is yún xī māo 云吸猫 (cloud snort cat), which refers to browsing pictures and videos of cats online. A significant portion of reddit is dedicated to accommodating this activity.

[VHM:  Romanizations / Hanyu Pinyin added]

A screenshot of this has been making the rounds on Facebook, shared via the page "Cats on Cocaine" (CokedOutCats), appropriately enough.

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