Animals have conversations with each other and take turns to speak

Animals are talking all around us, and you might be surprised to know that they are very often having respectful two-way conversations - a trait that for many years was thought of as unique to humans.

Research from the University of York has demonstrated that many aspects of human conversations are quite similar to interactions among other species in the animal kingdom.

The study, Taking turns: bridging the gap between human and animal communication, focused on speech interactions within four animal groups: birds, mammals, insects and anurans (frogs and toads). The international team of academics undertook a large-scale review of research into ‘turn-taking behaviour’ in animal communication, analysing hundreds of animal studies.

Researchers have called the art of waiting to speak as ‘Turn-taking’ refers to an animals’ ability to organise conversations whereby participants speak alternately. The ability to ‘turn-take’ as is demonstrated in the research study suggests that animals not only communicate, but are educated conversationalists.

Animals communicate in a range of different ways. For example, dolphins are understood to emit sounds to understand how to coordinate with others, marmoset monkeys raise their voices to locate others, and male birds chirp to draw female attention. 

A fundamental characteristic of the process of ‘turn taking’ in speech is the waiting time between interactions. Among birds the research found that the ‘latency time’, the waiting time between notes produced by one bird and then another, is less than 50 milliseconds. In a conversation between humans, this interval is about 200 milliseconds (...but this depends on how civilised the conversation is of course). Other slower animals, such as the sperm whale, set waiting times of about 2 seconds between interactions.

How many ways can animals communicate?

The way that animals communicate really depends on physiology and the environment. A range of communication techniques are used, from grunts, movements and pulsations to even underwater flashes. According to the University of York’s researchers, there are three main forms of communication: auditory, visual and chemical.

Chemical communication is the most primitive type, along with being the most difficult to identify and analyse. Chemical substances such as pheromones, most commonly known in relation to attraction, dating (in humans) and reproduction rituals. This chemical can also be used to communicate limits and boundaries, plus offering the capacity to recognise group members. Visual communication is established through movement and colour (e.g. poison frogs are often brightly coloured, such as yellow; male peacocks display their colourful feathers during mating rituals). More complex species such as some primates also include facial expressions in visual communication.. Finally, auditory signals can be emitted in a variety of ways. In the case of mammals, through the vocal cords. In reptiles, such as snakes, this is expressed through the rattle of their tail and in insects is through wing vibrations or organ noises sounds.

Establishing that different animals have their own specific languages also suggests that they have conscious ‘thought’. Regardless of how simple thought processes may be, the knowledge that animals can think should lead to at least ethical reflections on the behaviour of humans towards animals, specifically in relation to the use of animals for scientific testing and any form of animal exploitation by humans.

While many studies have been conducted into turn-taking behaviour in animals, it remains that very little is known about it, partly because the literature is so fragmented that large-scale cross-species comparison is almost but impossible, according to the researchers. With this is mind, the researchers have proposed a new framework for future studies on turn-taking to make cross-species comparisons easier.

The benefits of a clearer understanding of the primitive structure of language offers scientists the opportunity to gain further understanding of both animal and human evolution. It also helps to build a pathway towards gaining further insight into some more complex aspects of human brain functioning that currently neuroscience is still struggling to comprehend. 

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