Science Forward-Animal Communication


Summer Ash: Humans express ourselves in many
ways. From our first tentative cries as newborns, and emerging speech as children, to great
works of art, and literature. We have developed sophisticated ways of illustrating and explaining
our life experiences, emotions, and imaginations. In our everyday lives, we use technology that
would be astonishing to people who lived just a few generations ago. We even find new ways
to use our tools so that people with a range of abilities, and interests, and for many
different cultures can connect to one another. When we share our hopes, fears, and dreams
with each other, it feels like we are doing something that is singularly human. What can
we learn from studying and trying to understand how other animals communicate?
[music] Diana Reiss: For so long, we thought we were
the only thinking creatures on the planet. We’re the ones who are writing the books and
the papers, so maybe that’s not surprising. Often, we say we’re the only species capable
of X, Y, and Z. We jump to the conclusion that other animals don’t do it, because of
a lack of data. To me, that’s not a scientific way to respond.
Ofer Tchernichovski: The two different mistakes you can make when you are trying to study
animal, one of them is treating them as a reduced version of people, maybe that animals
are stupid people. The other type of mistake is the flipside of the same coin, is not realizing
that animals have a very different world. Summer Ash: Humans often explain the world
around us through language, yet the origin of language is still a great mystery. Is the
way humans communicate unique? Where did it come from? Language, as humans use it, is
only one form of communication. Scientists are working to better understand different
kinds of communication used by species other than our own.
Let’s start with communication itself. What does a scientist mean when he or she says,
“Communication,” and what does that have to do with being social?
Diana Reiss: Ah, communication. What is communication? Communication is the exchange and sharing
of information. That can be between two humans, two or more humans, it can be between humans
and animals, between other animals and other animals.
Sean McKenzie: A simple social behavior and a simple communication system is just something
that most organisms do. Which is, more or less, exclusively mating related, or individuals
signaling aggressively to each other. A complex communications system and complex social behaviors
are really more when organisms are working together for non reproductive goals.
Ants going out and foraging together, and cooperating to bring back food, or ants defending
a nest together, or building a nest together. Diana Reiss: Communication is really critical
if you’re a social organism. It may be maintaining contact with your offspring, with others in
your group, warning of danger, letting others know where there’s food sources, communicating
what you’re receiving in the sensory world, so you don’t have to be a big brained organism
to communicate. Sean McKenzie: Ants are useful for studying
social communication, because they have one of the most complex communication systems
in one of the simplest organisms. They are very small, their brains probably only have
a couple hundred thousand neurons. They’re just incredibly amenable to laboratory research,
while having a communication system at least as complex as most primates.
Summer Ash: Humans and a few other animals have a unique ability that ants don’t, vocal
learning. This means that we can learn to use our voices intentionally.
Ofer Tchernichovski: We learn to vocalize. Most animals don’t. They have what we call
innate or instinctive vocalization. They can learn to hear and change their behavior using
auditory learning. Auditory learning is very common. Vocal learning is where we have it,
obviously, that’s how we talk. Judith Spitz: We often think of human communications
in terms of spoken language, but of course, there are many other forms of human communication.
Everything from hieroglyphics, to facial gestures and so on, in which people can communicate
their ideas. Two big categories that you can think about human communication in terms of
spoken language is expressive and receptive language.
Summer Ash: Based on our current scientific knowledge, human speech and communication
abilities are considered unusually sophisticated. The vocal learning that humans do is present
in some other species, including zebra finches. Like ants, zebra finches lend themselves to
being studied in the lab. Ofer Tchernichovski: This is now the best
model we have, the best animal model we have to understand vocal development.
[birds chirping] We looked at how birds learn to combine syllables
to each other, how to make two or three syllable go together in a certain order.
[birds chirping] When they learn to do that, which is not easy
for them, they follow very simple similar principles to the ones that we see in little
babies that are doing vocal babbling before they start talking. We see that the process
in those two species that are so far away from each other are amazingly similar.
[baby cooing] Summer Ash: Animal behavior and communication,
like so much of what scientists study, involves a large number of different variables. Scientists
need clear definitions, clear questions and a range of different tools and methods.
Sean McKenzie: Scientists were able to take an ant, and they were able to drag the ant’s
abdomen along a surface in a crazy, weird, complex pattern, put another ant down on top
of it, and see that the ant followed exactly the same pattern. Showing that there was a
smell trail left by the first ant that demonstrated that ants use these smell messages for complex
social coordination. The more we study an ant, the more complex
we discover its communication systems are. It’s very easy to quantify the chemicals,
and it’s very easy to deal with chemicals and introduce them, and the behaviors are
much more difficult to study. You just have to be very rigorous in applying
a definition to different behaviors that you see, and observing behaviors closely. We use
tools like video tracking, and video recording to try to make sure that we have some form
of standardizable measurement of behavior. Diana Reiss: To understand dolphin communication,
I took two paths. One is experimental, where we’re manipulating something, and the other
path is observational, where we simply just observe what they’re doing and record their
behavior and their vocalizations. They’re two equally valuable paths, and reliable paths,
and they give us different kinds of information. Experimentation can happen in many different
ways, to ask the same questions, but you approach it in a different way.
Ofer Tchernichovski: I used to spend many, many hours listening to songs, slowing them
down, almost like falling asleep and dreaming, listening to them, looking at the birds, and
try to figure them out. The analysis and the experiments comes later, what comes first
is your commitment to get intimate with the world of those animals.
Diana Reiss: We barely can keep up with them. I mean, what they’re doing acoustically with
their behavior, people have looked for 60 years trying to decode dolphins, and we haven’t
scratched the surface. Summer Ash: As we learn more about animals,
we can use what we learn to protect them, and to provide the public with a greater understanding
of their amazing abilities. Diana Reiss: I think there’s a growing concern
about animal welfare. I think, again, this is very science driven. Once we know things
about animals, we can have the scientific data, then we get into ethical questions.
We need to start focusing on the cognitive and social prowess of these animals beyond
the physical, so now we’re demonstrating the things that they can do cognitively. We now
have to create a new audience that wants to protect them. [music]

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