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There's more to animal communication than meets the ear


Killer whales with accents, prairie dogs with vocabularies

September 11, 1997
Web posted at: 11:23 p.m. EDT (0323 GMT)

From Correspondent Rusty Dornin

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- It is commonly thought that animal communication is confined to a few fundamental sounds such as a menacing bark, a few warning chirps or the bawl of a lost cub.

But researchers say that the way animals communicate may be more elaborate and sophisticated than it appears.

CNN's Rusty Dornin reports
icon 2 min., 9 sec. VXtreme streaming video

Kangaroo rats, for example, communicate by stamping their feet. Recordings of their syncopated toe-tapping suggest to researcher Jan Randall that there is more there than just a congenital sense of rhythm.

"It doesn't have pitch," Randall said, "but the animals can modify it so it's different, so it has the components of a language."

Researchers have distinguished when a rat is drumming for territory, drumming for a mate or drumming to warn off its worst enemy, the snake.

"What the rat is saying it when it foot-drums an alert is 'I'm alert ... I see you ... go away.'"

Bio-acoustical engineer Bernie Krause has gone from the equator to the Arctic Circle, eavesdropping on the animal kingdom. He believes animal communication is quite complex.

"I'll see evidence of creatures having exchanges between one another ... behavior that kind of relates to vocal communication that's astounding."

Killer whales with accents

A bird

Krause says killer whales have detailed chats when on the attack, and that the accent of one pod might be different from that of others.

"There may be groups in the area that have the same language and articulation," Krause said, "but each pod or group of animals has its own vocal accent which is unique to that pod."

Ornithologist Luis Baptista says sparrows sing different dialects in each region. He says birds can also give more than one danger call.

"A little one means 'Watch it!'" Baptista said. "But if it's very serious, they say 'Very, very careful!' And some birds have a danger signal that says 'a hawk is overhead.' So some birds have danger signals for 'above' or 'on the ground.'"

Another researcher says that prairie dogs bark differently depending on the predator. There's one bark for coyotes, one for hawks and one for humans. The researcher claims there's even one for a human carrying a gun.

Some scientists scoff at such interpretations and say animals are capable of only the simplest alert calls. But a growing number agree that talk amongst the animals is anything but dull.


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