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Renowned zoologist Arik Kershenbaum poses the question: "Do animals communicate with one another and what is the content of their communication?"

Renowned zoologist Arik Kershenbaum poses the question: “Do animals communicate with one another and what is the content of their communication?”


A zoologist named Arik Kershenbaum from Cambridge University has expertise in animal communication and focuses on studying wolves, gibbons, and dolphins. He aims to gain insight not only into their ecology and conservation, but also the development of human language. In 2020, he released his debut book, The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, which delved into the possibility of extraterrestrial life. His latest book, Why Animals Talk: The New Science of Animal Communication, is set to be released on January 25th.

What motivated you to write this book?

My previous publication was unique and explored unconventional concepts. However, I was eager to write about my professional endeavors. It is a topic that captivates everyone: the potential for animals to communicate and the content of their conversations. This topic creates a strange division in our minds: while we desire for animals to possess the ability to talk, we also fear it because it challenges our perception of being superior.

What challenges do you face when studying animal communication in the wild, such as trekking through remote Vietnamese jungles or enduring harsh winter conditions in Yellowstone to observe gibbons and wolves?

The majority of these creatures do not desire your presence. Interacting with wolves is particularly challenging due to their nocturnal nature, requiring the use of sound to communicate. This is why there is extensive research on wolf howls, as they are often difficult to locate visually. It is not feasible to capture and collar every animal, as it is a costly and challenging task.

What methods do you employ to overcome these issues?

Our main technique is passive acoustic tracking. We deploy multiple recording devices and use triangulation to determine the location of animals based on their vocalizations. This eliminates the need for collaring or visual confirmation, as long as the animals continue to make noise.

I found it intriguing to discover that dolphins possess distinct names, or at the very least, unique signature whistles…

Researchers have placed significant emphasis on understanding signature whistles. The purpose and origin of these whistles are still not fully understood. While a wolf’s howl can be used to identify the individual, it does not function as a name and is not imitated by others. So why do dolphins engage in this behavior? It is highly likely that this serves a function in promoting visibility underwater. Since visual cues are limited in underwater environments, sound becomes crucial for maintaining a cohesive social group.

You refer to parrots as the communicators of the avian realm. What led to their development of such strong vocal abilities?

Parrots are unique creatures that diverge from the typical evolutionary path of birds. They have adapted to thrive in challenging environments and must use their problem-solving skills to access food that may be scarce or unpredictable. Unlike other birds, such as robins, parrots also live in social groups. In addition to possessing the physical capacity to produce sounds and the cognitive ability to understand them, there must also be a purpose for using these sounds – and living in flocks serves as that purpose.

Dolphins have signature whistles that may serve a similar purpose to names.

Can we eliminate the notion that language distinguishes humans from other animals since it implies superiority?

Without a doubt, our actions and ability to control our environment are fundamentally different from those of other animals. This difference can be attributed to our use of language. Our human civilization would not have been possible without it, and I do not underestimate its significance. In fact, I believe that language is what sets our species apart from all others on Earth. However, I do not think it is necessary to use this as a means of distinction. It is simply an observation that we possess something that other animals do not, just as they possess traits that we do not have. While it would be nice to have wings like some animals do, I do not feel any sense of regret or envy. Similarly, I do not feel bad that animals do not have the gift of language.

Is it rational to inquire about the animal that possesses language abilities similar to humans? Alternatively, do different animals possess similar language abilities in varying ways?
The latter. One of the key things is there is no sense in which animals are evolving towards having a language. If that were the case, then you could ask: “Who’s gone the furthest along the road to language?” But it’s not. If there were evolutionary drivers for dolphins to have language, they’d have it. But we don’t see them on the cusp. So what that tells us is that in their niche – their environment and the context in which they live – language is not what they need.

When we introduce animals into our environment, certain fundamental language skills can start to develop…

This is especially apparent with parrots, as they appear to have the ability to learn human language, but do not utilize it in their natural habitat. This observation suggests that while our brains may possess the capacity for language comprehension, parrot brains do not lack this ability. However, it is not a necessary skill for their survival.

Why is it crucial at this time to focus on animal communication?

AI is increasingly being utilized to understand animal communication, with advancements being made in recognizing emotions, messages, and information. Even without a specific language, the ability to interpret animal sounds like a wolf interpreting another wolf’s howl could have a significant impact on our relationship with the natural world. This could help mitigate conflicts with animals, such as being able to communicate with wolves to stay away or understanding when a gibbon is signaling a lack of food. The potential for AI to bridge the gap between humans and animals has important implications for conservation efforts.

Apart from artificial intelligence, we are currently facing an environmental crisis. It would be beneficial to become more conscious of the struggles and transformations of our fellow beings on this planet. This is a crucial moment to be attuned to the messages of nature, but that is not possible if we only listen to what we want to hear, which has been our approach thus far.

Do you encounter any animals with accents in your line of work?
Yes, and they’re interesting in that they demonstrate the way two isolated populations will drift apart genetically, culturally and communicatively. In my paper on hyraxes [herbivorous mammals found in Africa and the Middle East], you saw this really interesting phenomenon where you had a series of colonies in a straight line along a valley, and any two adjacent communities were similar [in terms of syntax in their song], but the farther you went, the more different they became.

As a member of METI.org’s board of advisers, what is the likelihood of successful communication with extraterrestrial beings if we were to encounter them?

I would estimate the likelihood as being very high. In the event that we encounter extraterrestrial beings, it implies that they have traveled to Earth and possess advanced technology. If I were tasked with communicating with intelligent aliens on another planet, I would put in a significant effort to establish a means of communication.

  • Why Animals Talk: The New Science of Animal Communication is published by Penguin (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com