How do animals communicate?

10 January 2023





Irene is wondering, "what's the most sophisticated communication in any animal species other than in humans?"


Tom - Well, it's a brilliant question and one that people are looking into at the moment. A big problem is that we haven't really been looking at animal communication or non-human communication for very long. And we've got a lot of difficulties in even discerning it. We can't hear all the sounds, we can't see all of the things that are happening. We can't be everywhere. And there are communications taking place in the soil, communications taking place in the sea. But, saying that, of the communications that we have seen, and I know I'm biased, the communications of some citation species seem to be highly complex and complex in ways that are quite similar to the ways that we think of our language as being. This isn't to say that they have language, but whales and dolphins live a really long time, some species up to 200 years. Many species live in highly complicated social groups they need to hold together by communicating. And because they live in the sea, the best method of communicating is with sound. And over the last few decades, we've been starting to record a lot of these sounds and we've found there are lots of different kinds of sounds and the sounds are used really differently in different situations. Some of the simpler sounds we think might be things like, in some species of dolphin for instance, signature whistles, which is analogous to a name. A baby bottle nose dolphin would slowly learn its own signature whistle and then that would only be used by it and the other dolphins that know it when it's around, and they've even done experiments where they've noticed that dolphins separated from their social group and then reunited - the other dolphins remember their signature whistle, their name.

Tom - But it's really hard to understand the complexity of another animal's communication systems as a human being because our whole understanding and way of describing communication is based on our own. And that's where, at the moment, there are some really exciting studies going on using artificial intelligence, machine learning, as a way in. Because we've run analyses on human language using the software behind Google Translate, for instance. Google Translate doesn't know how to translate between one human language and another. It's just given enormous data sets of written or spoken human speech. And then it makes a huge array of all the relationships between the words and how they're used in these massive data sets that no human could ever spend the time to listen through or read through. And then it finds invisible patterns in human language and it uses them to translate between one human language and another. And that's what's really exciting lots of zoologists at the moment because these tools give us a way into other animals communications. And the first animals that the zoologists are choosing to go after are sperm whales. And there's a huge project in Dominica to try and decode their communications.


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