You talking to me? Scientists try to unravel the mystery of animal conversations

  • The team of international researchers undertook a large scale review of animal communication, analysing hundreds of species
  • Findings reveal animals take it in turns to ‘talk’ to each other, just like humans
  • Research paves the way to tracing the evolutionary history of turn-taking behaviour and better understanding of the origins of human language


Elephants

African elephants like to rumble, naked mole rats trade soft chirps, while fireflies alternate flashes in courtship dialogues, a new study into the weird and wonderful world of animal conversations has revealed.

An international team of academics including researchers from the University of Sheffield undertook a large-scale review of research into turn-taking behaviour in animal communication, analysing hundreds of animal studies.

Turn-taking, the orderly exchange of communicative signals, is a hallmark of human conversation and has been shown to be largely universal across human cultures.

The review, a collaboration between the Universities of Sheffield and York, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, reveals that this most human of abilities is actually remarkably widespread across the animal kingdom.

While research on turn-taking behaviour is abundant, beginning more than 50 years ago with studies of the vocal interactions of birds, the literature is currently fragmented, making rigorous cross-species comparisons impossible.

Researchers who study turn-taking behaviours in songbirds, for example, speak of “duets”, whereas those who study some species of monkeys note their “antiphonal calls” in which monkeys take turns in call and response.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of turn-taking behaviour across all species, humans included, is its fine timing.

In some species of songbird, for example, the latency between notes produced by two different birds is less than 50 milliseconds.

Other species are considerably slower; for example, sperm whales exchange sequences of clicks with a gap of about two seconds between turns. Humans lie somewhere in between, with gaps of around 200 milliseconds between turns at talk in conversation.

The authors of the study propose that systematic cross-species comparisons of such turn-taking behaviour may shed new light on the evolution of language.

The academics propose a new comparative framework for future studies on turn-taking.

Ray Wilkinson, Professor of Human Communication at the University of Sheffield and one of the authors of the paper, said: “The fact that people take turns at talking in conversation may not seem at first sight to be a particularly important feature of human communication.

“In recent years, however, research has started to suggest that investigating this feature of communication may open up new insights into the nature of language, how it is acquired by children and how it evolved.

Research has started to suggest that investigating this feature of communication may open up new insights into the nature of language, how it is acquired by children and how it evolved.

Professor Ray wilkinson, Department of human communication sciences

“By examining turn-taking in non-human animal communication and developing a framework for systematic cross-species comparisons, we aim to facilitate further research into the evolution of turn-taking and its possible role in the evolution of human language.”

Fellow author, Dr Kobin Kendrick, from the University of York’s Department of Language and Linguistic Science, said: “The ultimate goal of the framework is to facilitate large-scale, systematic cross-species comparisons.

“Such a framework will allow researchers to trace the evolutionary history of this remarkable turn-taking behaviour and address longstanding questions about the origins of human language.”

Dr Sonja Vernes, from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, added: “We came together because we all believe strongly that these fields can benefit from each other, and we hope that this paper drives more cross talk between human and animal turn-taking research in the future.”

The review is published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.0598.

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