Animal Communication may be defined as the transmission of a signal from one animal to another such that the sender benefits, on average, from the response of the recipient (Pearce). According to Robert Mannell this definition allows for the inclusion of many types of behavior and permits communication to be applied to a great range of animals. Natural animal communication can include chemical signals, smell, movement, posture, facial gestures, visual signals and sound. The intent of these signals is to attract, repel, signal aggression or submission, advertise species, warn of predators, or communicate about the environment or the availability of food. These signals may be instinctive or learned from others.
Animals have many ways to communicate, whales song, wolves howl, frogs croak, and birds chirp. Honey bees wangle dance and dogs wag their tails. These are all ways animals transmit information to one another as well as other species. Animals often use verbal and nonverbal forms of communication including non-vocal auditory out bursts such as the slap of a dolphin’s tail, bioluminescence, scent marking, chemical or tactile cues, visual cues, and postural gestures.
According to Jessika Toothman not every member of a species’ acoustic communication are just alike. Animals in different regions are known to use different dialects. For example, one study found that blue whales produce different patterns of pulses, tones and pitches depending on where they’re from. Some bird species are the same way. Interestingly, birds that on the border between territories of differing songsters often become ‘bilingual’ and are capable of able of communicating in the singing parlance favored by each of their groups of neighbors.
There is evidence of communication between species as well. One study suggested that the reason Madagascan spiny-tailed iguanas have well-developed ears is so they can hear the warning calls of the Madagascan paradise flycatcher. The two species have nothing in common except for the fact that they share a general habitat and raptors like to snack on them. When an iguana hears a bird raise the alarm among other birds, it likely knows to be on alert for incoming predators as well (Toothman).
Some linguists have argued that language is a unique human behavior and that animal communication falls short of human language in a number of important ways. Humans possess an innate universal grammar that is not possessed by other species. This is demonstrated by the universality of language in human society and by the similarity of their grammars. No natural non-human system of communication shares this common grammar. Humans acquire language not because humans are more intelligent, but because humans possess some species-specific mechanisms which are a prerequisite of language-acquisition (Pearce).
Charles Hockett devised a list of thirteen criteria that animals must meet in order to regard communication as language. These design features of language are: 1) Vocal auditory channel – sounds emitted from the mouth and perceived by the auditory system. This applies to many animal communication systems, but there are many exceptions. Also, it does not apply to human sign language, which meets all the other twelve requirements. It also does not apply to written language. 2) Broadcast transmission and directional reception – this requires that the recipient can tell the direction that the signal comes from and thus the originator of the signal. 3) Rapid fading – signal lasts a short time. This is true of all systems involving sound. It doesn’t take into account audio recording technology and is also not true for written language. It tends not to apply to animal signals involving chemicals and smells which often fade slowly. 4) Interchangeability – all utterances that are understood can be produced. This is different to some communication systems where, for example, males produce one set of behaviors and females another and they are unable to interchange these messages so that males use the female signal and vice versa. 5) Total feedback – the sender of a message also perceives the message. That is, you hear what you say. This is not always true for some kinds of animal displays. 6) Specialization – the signal produced is specialized for communication and is not the side effect of some other behavior for example the panting of a dog incidentally produces the panting sound. 7) Semanticity – there is a fixed relationship between a signal and a meaning. 8) Arbitrariness – there is an arbitrary relationship between a signal and its meaning. That is, the signal is related to the meaning by convention or by instinct but has no inherent relationship with the meaning. This can be seen in different words in different languages referring to the same meaning, or to different calls of different sub-species of a single bird species having the same meaning. 9) Discreteness – language can be said to be built up from discrete units, for example phonemes in human language. Exchanging such discrete units causes a change in the meaning of a signal. This is an abrupt change, rather than a continuous change of meaning. However, speech loudness and pitch can be changed continuously without abrupt changes of meaning. 10) Displacement – communicating about things or events that are distant in time or space. Bee dancing is an example of this. 11) Productivity – language is an open system. We can potentially produce an infinite number of different messages by combining the elements differently. 12) Traditional transmission – each generation needs to learn the system of communication from the preceding generation. Many species produce the same uniform calls regardless of where they live in the range, even a range spanning several continents. Such systems can be assumed to be defined by instinct and thus by genetics, on the other hand, some animals to develop the calls of their species when raised in isolation. 13) Duality of patterning – large numbers of meaningful signals (morphemes or words) produced from a small number of meaningless units (phonemes).
Spoken human language is extremely difficult or impossible for most animals because of the structure of their vocal organs. Apes, for example, cannot produce a large proportion of the vowels and would have difficulty with some of the consonants. This may be due not only to the shapes of the vocal organs but also to the limitations of the motor centers in the brain that control these organs. Apes have been taught to use language that involves them using their hands, sign language or the manipulation of symbols. Some birds, such as certain parrots and the Indian Hill Mynah, are able to mimic human speech with great clarity. Attempt to teach such animal’s spoken human language has been made. Dolphins cannot be taught either type of language but may be able to understand sounds or gestures and to respond by pressing specially designed levers.
Just because a species doesn’t have such a communication system in the wild does not necessarily prove that they are incapable of using one. No animal communication system fulfils all of the criteria unlined by Hackett, however, in 1977 Irene Pepper berg decided to see if she could find put what was on another creatures mind by taking to it and she bought a one-year-old African gray parrot. When Pepper berg began her dialog with the parrot, who she named Alex, it was widely thought that animals were incapable of any thought, only capable of being programmed to react to stimuli, but lacking the ability to think or feel.
Certain skills such as good memory, a grasp of grammar and symbols, self-awareness, understanding others’ motives, imitating others, and being creative are considered key signs of higher mental abilities. Slowly researchers have documented these talents in other species, chipping away at what we thought made human beings distinctive while offering a glimpse of where our own abilities came from. Scrub jays know that other jays are thieves and that stashed food can spoil; sheep can recognize faces; chimpanzees use a variety of tools to probe termite mounds and even use weapons to hunt small mammals; dolphins can imitate human postures; the archerfish, which stuns insects with a sudden blast of water, can learn how to aim its squirt simply by watching an experienced fish perform the task (Morel).
Pepper berg did not claim that Alex used language saying that he used a two way communication code instead. The bird could identify 50 different objects, recognize quantities up to six, distinguish seven colors and five shapes as well as understand the concepts of bigger, smaller, same and different. Alex had a vocabulary of about 150 words and appeared to have an understanding of what he said. Pepper berg was training Alex to recognize English phonemes, in the hope that he would conceptually relate an English written word with the spoken word. He could identify sounds made by two-letter combinations such as SH and/or (Morell).
Research into non-human Great Ape language has generated a great deal of evidence suggesting that apes are capable of using sophisticated communication with humans and other apes. Gorillas and chimpanzees have been taught to form signs in sign language, arrange physical tokens in specific sequences, and operate keyboards with symbols on them. Analysis suggests that meaningful information is being conveyed by these behaviors, but it is disputed whether this phenomenon is truly language. Sign language and computer keyboards are used in primate language research because non-human primates lack vocal cords and other human speech organs. However, primates do possess the manual dexterity required for keyboard operation (“Great Ape Language”).
Bottle-nosed dolphins dominate many marine acts because of their intelligence and researchers believe much of the dolphin’s brain is used for communication. While it is not known if dolphins have a formal language, they do communicate with a signature whistle to identify themselves. Dolphins lack vocal cords but use a complicated system of whistles, squeaks, moans, trills and clicks produced by sphincter muscles within the blow hole to make sounds. Using echolocation dolphins send out frequencies by clicking. The clicking sounds bounce off objects and the returning sound waves are picked up by the dolphin’s bulbous forehead and lower jaw and interpreted as to distance, size and shape of object. This sound system is particularly useful at night or in murky waters as it allows the dolphin to navigate even if visibility is poor. Dolphins have produced sound frequencies from 0.25 to 200 kHz, using the higher frequencies for echolocation and the lower frequencies for communication and orientation (“Dolphin Communication”).
It is clear that we can communicate with some animals to some extent. Great apes have learned languages based on hand gestures and symbols. Parrots can learn to speak words, and even use those words to demonstrate feats of learning. Many animals can learn respond to hand gestures and voice commands. Research shows humans have the ability to convey meaning to animals of almost any kind. By recording animal sounds and playing them back, we can attract their attention or elicit the same behavior as the original call. In some cases researchers have modified signals and elicited modified behavior. These and other experiments help to shed light on how and to what extent animals can communicate.
“Dolphin Communication.” Beach-Netcom. Atlantic Bottle-Nosed Dolphin. (2012) Web. 9 June 2012. < http://www.beach-net.com/dolphins.html
“Great Ape Language.” Science Daily. (nd.) Web. 9 June 2012.
Hockett, Charles F. “The Origin of Speech.” Columbia.edu. September 1960. Web. 9 June 2012.
Mannell, Robert. “Animal Communcation and Language.” Macquarie University, Department of Linguistics. (1999). Web. 9 June 2012.
Morell, Virginia. “Minds of their Own.” National Geographic. March 2008. Web. 9 June 2012. < http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/03/animal-minds/virginia-morell-text/1>
Pearce, John M. Animal Learning and Cognition:An Introduction, 3rd ed. East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press, 2008. Print.
Toothman, Jessika. “How do Animals Communicate?” Animal Planet.com. 22 March 2010. Web. 7 June 2012. < http://animals.howstuffworks.com/animal-facts/animals-communicate.htm>
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