The animals are talking. What does it mean? | ET REALITY


Reiss’s research on dolphin cognition is one of the few projects on animal communication that dates back to the 1980s, when there were widespread funding cuts in the field after a leading researcher recanted his highly publicized statement that a A chimpanzee could be trained to use sign language to converse with humans. In a study published in 1993, Reiss offered bottlenose dolphins at a facility in Northern California. an underwater keyboard that allowed them to choose specific toys, which he handed out while emitting computer-generated whistles, like some kind of vending machine. The dolphins spontaneously began to imitate the computer-generated whistles when they played independently with the corresponding toy, like children throwing a ball and calling it “ball, ball, ball,” Reiss told me. “The behavior,” Reiss said, “was strikingly similar to that in the early stages of language acquisition in children.”

The researchers hoped to replicate the method by equipping an octopus tank with an interactive platform of some kind and watching how the octopus interacted with it. But it was unclear whether such a device would interest the solitary cephalopod. An earlier episode of disgust led her to discharge enough ink to turn the water in the tank so black that it could not be seen. Unlocking her communication skills may require her finding scientists as fascinating as they find her.

While experimenting with Animals trapped in cages and tanks can reveal their latent faculties; Discovering the extent of what animals communicate with each other requires spying on them in the wild. Previous studies often combined general communication, in which individuals extract meaning from signals sent by other individuals, with the more specific, flexible and open system of language. In a seminal 1980 study, for example, primatologists Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney used the “replay” technique to decode the meaning of alarm calls emitted by green monkeys in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. When a recording of the bark-like calls emitted by a vervet monkey encountering a leopard was played for other vervet monkeys, he sent them running into the trees. Recordings of a vervet monkey’s low growls that saw an eagle led other vervet monkeys to look skyward; Recordings of the high-pitched screeches emitted by a vervet monkey upon noticing a python caused them to scan the ground.

At the time, The New York Times published a front-page article announcing the discovery of rudimentary “language” in vervet monkeys. But critics objected that the calls might not have any properties of language. Instead of being intentional messages to communicate meaning to others, calls can be involuntary sounds driven by emotions, like the cry of a hungry baby. Such involuntary expressions can convey valuable information to listeners, but unlike words and sentences, they do not allow discussion of things separated by time and space. A greenie’s barking in the midst of leopard-induced terror might alert other greenies to the presence of a leopard, but it couldn’t provide any way to talk about, say, “that really smelly leopard that showed up in the ravine yesterday evening.” tomorrow”. .”

Toshitaka Suzuki, an ethologist at the University of Tokyo who describes himself as an animal linguist, while bathing in a bath one day, found a method to differentiate intentional calls from involuntary ones. When we spoke over Zoom, he showed me a picture of a fluffy cloud. “If you hear the word ‘dog,’ you might see a dog,” he noted, as I stared at the white mass. “If you hear the word ‘cat,’ you might see a cat.” That, he said, makes the difference between a word and a sound. “Words influence how we see objects,” he said. “Not the sounds.” Using breeding studies, Suzuki determined that Japanese titmice, songbirds that live in the forests of East Asia and which he has studied for more than 15 years, emit a special vocalization when they encounter snakes. When other Japanese titmice heard a recording of the vocalization, which Suzuki called “jar jar,” they searched the ground, as if searching for a snake. To determine whether “jar jar” meant “snake” in Japanese, he added Another element to his experiments.: an eight-inch stick, which he dragged along the surface of a tree with hidden ropes. Generally, Suzuki discovered, the birds ignored the stick. It was, according to his analogy, a passing cloud. But then he played a recording of the “jar jar” call. In this case, the stick seemed to take on a new meaning: the birds approached the stick, as if examining whether it was actually a snake. As a word, the so-called “jar jar” had changed the perception of him.

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