Using Patterns to Understand Animal Language

A Conversation with Con Slobodchikoff, Professor Emeritus of Biology, Northern Arizona University, and CEO, Animal Communications Ltd.; hosted by Roger Payne, Founder and President, Ocean Alliance

CS: Issues in animal communications were spurred by a National Geographic record of whale song. Gave him the impetus to look at animal language, which wound up being prairie dogs.

We use distinct experimental techniques to analyze language of prairie dogs.

Records and analyzes calls of prairie dogs using software.

Each prairie dog has its own tonalities, but all dogs have common call for a coyote. When another pd is calling, they can tell which one it is.

Used discriminant function analysis, fuzzy logic to describe scientific discoveries.

“Nervous Nellies”: prairie dogs that repeat threats that aren’t really threatening.

Calls contain info about location of predator through frequency differences and differences in sound intensity.

After playing alarm calls back to the prairie dogs, prairie dogs responded.

“In studying an animal, you need to have a Rosetta Stone.”

How much info can be packed into the chirps?

Each chirp lasts 1/1o of a second. Each time slice contains tiny units of sound, phonemes. No one has ever found that in any kind of vocalization to date.

What does this say? Different animals perceive time differently. There’s an amazing amount of info out there saying that animals have languages. Lizards have been shown to have distinct grammar in their mating signals.

Lots of animals will be found to have similar kinds of signals, but we’ll need to organize this in a way that allows us to build up a dictionary of what these signals mean.

Language in animals is one of the last things that separates us from them. Lots of other animals use tools, have culture. Many people seem to find that frightening.

Think of how wonderful it would be to have a little device worn by your pets and the device would say, “Feed me stupid”

This would be very helpful with farm animals, to tell them why and what we want them to do.

If we can make artificial animal proteins, maybe we wont need to eat them and we can form bonds, etc with animals and nature.

David Brin: It appears to me that a great many animals have come up to a threshold, yet a whole bunch of them appear to be banging our heads against a glass ceiling. Would it be worth bringing them into society?

CS: If we can get our heads around the idea that we’d become partners with animals rather than enslaving them, it could be a beneficial arrangement for both.