Animal Vocal Sequences

Anyone who thought Dr Doolittle was a load of rubbish may have to think again. Scientists have shown that animal "languages" are actually much more than just the simple sequences of grunts and whistles we assumed before.

So, what have they been looking at?

The experiments themselves involved studying and analysing the noises made by a wide variety of animals. The creatures whose sounds got the statistical treatment included chickadees, finches, bats, orangutans, killer whales, pilot whales and hyraxes.

What did we think we knew before?

We knew animal noises could be fairly impressive. For instance, the mockingbird can mimic up to 100 different calls of other birds.

But until now we assumed animal noises weren't very complex, and that they all involved a simple structural system known as the "Markov" process. This basically meant that any sequence of animals noises should be easy to predict.

Human language, on the other hand, uses a more complex system known as "context-free grammars". This gives us a wider set of rules to play with.

What do we think now?

Looking at their statistical research, researchers found little evidence of the Markov processes in animal calls. Instead, the sounds made by animals were more consistent with statistical models relevant to human language.

This all suggests there may be a "missing link" on the evolutionary path from animal communication to human language - and we just haven't discovered it yet.

And what do the experts say?

Dr Arik Kershenbaum, from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, Tennessee, said: "Language is the biggest difference that separates humans from animals evolutionarily, but multiple studies are finding more and more stepping stones that seem to bridge this gap."

Apparently, more research might even help us better understand the origins of human language. But we probably won't be talking to the animals any time soon.

For full story click here.

For more information on the paper, Animal vocal sequences: not the Markov chains we thought they were, click here.

For Science Magazine story click here.

For Washington Post story click here.