Thursday, July 28, 2016

Animals: Language and Communication

Beware of scientists with an agenda. 

Humans have been evolving and changing genetically for millions of years.  Most of that time is hidden from us and we can only guess what life was like for the ancients who would eventually become homo sapiens.  What we know of human history for sure only extends back a few thousand years.  One can assume that humans were hunter-gatherers over most of those blank millions of years and deduce something from the record of hunter-gatherer societies that existed before their histories were contaminated by modern society.  Unfortunately, these societies exhibited a variety of behaviors and invited considerable speculation.  Not surprisingly, male anthropologists focused on evidence of male domination and warlike behaviors.  Female anthropologists, not surprisingly, managed to find evidence to support theories where human evolution was dominated by the development of social skills rather than delight in murdering one’s neighbor.

What we are told of the properties of other animals with whom we share this earth is often biased because the studies are conducted by humans who have inevitably begun with the assumption that humans are unique and all other animals must therefore be inferior.  The result of this perspective is smugly satisfying, but it causes us to miss the rich and complex lives that other animals around us are living, and to denigrate their actions based on emotion or intelligent reasoning as being merely instinctual.  Carl Safina wishes to disabuse us of such fantasies in his book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.  He uses detailed studies of the lives of elephants, wolves, killer whales, and dolphins, coupled with an amazing collection of anecdotal experiences to convince us that other animals are more similar to us in complex sociality than we might wish to believe.

The subject here will be the means animals use to communication with each other that takes the place of the language used by humans.  Those who study animals living freely in their natural habitats discover that communication is complex, it is frequent, and it has to be learned just as human children acquire meanings from their elders.  Also, it is often group specific, analogous to the way human groups differentiate themselves with ethnic languages.

“It seems a common human assumption that each species has one set of calls—no dialects, no differing languages analogous to those among humans.  An implicit assumption seems to be that their vocalizations are innate and don’t have to be learned.  Individuals taken from the wild as infants—as with zoo apes and circus elephants and killer whales—likely never learned important aspects of their own native ways of communicating with sound, gesture, context, and nuance.”

“Many birds have regional dialects.  Killer whales also have call vocabularies used by some groups and not shared by others.  Differences like this are everywhere around us, but our discoveries about them are ongoing.  We are still cataloguing such behaviors and describing calls.  Translating their communication, though, might turn out to be a difficult-to-reach itch.  For now, what elephants are saying and understanding is more sophisticated than is our understanding of what elephants are saying.”

Let us begin with what we know about elephant communication.

“Elephant song spans ten octaves, from subsonic rumbles to trumpets, about 8 hertz to about 10,000 hertz.  Studies with instruments that can shift very low sounds up into the range of human hearing show that if elephants are excited enough to be streaming from their temple glands, they’re also vocalizing.  It’s just that, often, their rumbles, though loud, are too low-frequency for humans to hear.”

“Elephants’ low-frequency rumbles create waves not only through the air but also across the ground.  Elephants can hear rumbles inaudible to humans over distances of several miles.  Their great sensitivity to low frequencies derives through ear structure, bone conduction, and special nerve endings that make their toes, feet, and trunk tip extremely sensitive to vibration.  So part of elephant vocal communication is sent through the ground and received through their feet.”

What emerges over and over again in animals studies is that the animals develop the tools they need for survival just as humans did.  However, given their physical characteristics, the environments in which they lived in while evolving, and the threats they encountered, the tools will be quite different for different species.  So different, in fact, that a casual observer may not even recognize that communication is taking place.

It seems that elephants required the ability to communicate over long distances to enhance their survivability—and they are better at it than most people think possible. 

“Hauntingly, elephants communicate over very long distances.  No one knows how they do it.  Even though the low frequency of their rumbles pitches much of the calling too low for human hearing, those calls are loud (115 decibels, comparable to loud live rock music at 120 decibels).  Loud enough that, in theory, animals six miles away can hear such calls.  We know that special receptors, called Pacinian corpuscles, in their feet help them pick up elephant rumbles traveling across the ground.  Have they another way of calling that penetrates even further?”

Since so little is understood about animal capabilities, Safina must resort to anecdotal accounts of events to make his points.

“In a privately owned wildlife sanctuary in Zimbabwe lived some eighty well-known, very relaxed elephants who hung around a tourist lodge’s artificial water holes.  Officials ninety miles away in Hwange National Park decided to reduce the park’s elephant densities by ‘culling’ hundreds of elephants (using helicopters to herd elephants to waiting marksmen, who were instructed to kill whole families).  On the day the distant slaughter started, the relaxed tourist-lodge elephants abruptly vanished.  Several days later, they were found bunched together in the corner of the sanctuary farthest from Hwange.  ‘Elephants are able to detect distress calls over large distances and are fully aware when their fellows are being killed,’ Cynthia moss has said.”

Perhaps observers have underestimated the capability of elephants to process signals sent through the ground.

Elephants live complex social lives that require suitably nuanced means of communications.  They live in families dominated by the matriarch, but they also must interact with other families.  They must communicate within the family and between families and make decisions as to who to trust to find water or food.  And they must remember and recall these interactions for future reference.

“Even if elephants don’t have a sophisticated syntax, they have a vocabulary.  They wield a communication kit with dozens and dozens of gestures and sounds and combinations.  Why don’t we understand them better by now?”

Elephants, like humans and many other animals, just like to have company to chat with. 

Before we sample another anecdote about elephants, a brief diversion to describe whale communication is necessary.

“The great ‘baleen whales’ can produce, as do elephants, sounds too low-frequency for human hearing.  But an elephant would be astonished to know what a whale can do with sound.  The big whales make sounds as loud as a medium sized ship.  You can’t hear it; their frequency is too low.  Yet whales very, very far apart can hear one another.  Whales such as finbacks swimming hundreds of miles from one another can migrate ‘together,’ their calls letting them stay in touch during their travels.”

What whales do with their sounds is fascinating.

“In the 1970s, scientists realized that humpback whales sing structured songs.  Strangely, even if they are coming from thousands of miles apart, males converging on mating grounds all sing the same song.  Humpback song is composed of about ten different consecutive themes, each made of repeated phrases of about ten different notes requiring about fifteen seconds to sing.  The song lasts about ten minutes.  Then the whale repeats it.  For hours in the ocean, in their season of courtship, the whales sing.  Each ocean’s song is different, and over months and years it changes in the same way for the thousands of whales in each ocean, the song somehow a continual work in progress, fully shared.”

“Sometimes the change is sudden and radical.  In the year 2000, researchers announced that humpback’s song off Australia’s east coast was ‘replaced rapidly and completely’ by the song Indian Ocean humpbacks off Australia’s west coast had been singing.  It seems a few ‘foreigners’ made the trek west to east, and their song became such an instant hit with the easterners that everybody had to sing it.  The researchers wrote ‘Such a revolutionary change is unprecedented in animal cultural vocal traditions.’  And once a phrase in the song disappears, it has never again been heard, despite over twenty years of eavesdropping.”

The reader might be wondering what whale songs have to do with elephants.  Actually, very little, but it was such a great story that it just had to be included.  The important thing to remember is that both species like to express themselves at low frequencies below the detection level of humans as sound.  We are now ready to describe a haunting encounter that was also makes so great a story it absolutely must be included.

Safina includes an observation made by Lyall Watson as he stood on a cliff overlooking South Africa’s seacoast.  He was watching a whale that had surfaced and then submerged again when he felt what he described as a “reverberation in the air.”

“The strange rhythm seemed to be coming from behind me, from the land, so I turned to look across the gorge…where my heart stopped…”

“Standing there in the shade of the tree was an elephant…staring out to sea!...I recognized her from a color photograph put out by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry under the title ‘The Last Remaining Knysna Elephant.’  This was the matriarch herself…”

“She was here because she no longer had anyone left to talk to in the forest.  She was standing here on the edge of the ocean because it was the next, nearest, and most powerful source of infrasound.  The under-rumble of the surf would have been well within her range, a soothing balm for an animal used to be surrounded by low and comforting frequencies, by the lifesounds of a herd, and now this was the next best thing.”

“My heart went out to her.  The whole idea of this grandmother of many being alone for the first time in her life was tragic, conjuring up the vision of countless other old and lonely souls.  But just as I was about to be consumed by helpless sorrow, something even more extraordinary took place…”

“The throbbing was back in the air.  I could feel it and I began to understand why.  The blue whale was on the surface again, pointed inshore, resting, her blowhole clearly visible.  The matriarch was here for the whale!  The largest animal in the ocean and the largest living land animal were no more than a hundred yards apart, and I was convinced that they were communicating!  In infrasound, in concert, sharing big brains and long lives, understanding the pain of high investment in a few precious offspring, aware of the importance and the pleasure of complex sociality, these rare and lovely great ladies were commiserating over the back fence of this rocky Cape shore, woman to woman, matriarch to matriarch, almost the last of their kind.”

“I turned, blinking away the tears, and left them to it.  This was no place for a mere man…”

Language experts bicker back and forth over whether or not animals should be deemed to possess languages.  From Wikipedia we obtain these comments on the topic.

“Animal languages are forms of non-human animal communication that show similarities to human language. Animals communicate by using a variety of signs such as sounds or movements. Such signing may be considered complex enough to be called a form of language if the inventory of signs is large, the signs are relatively arbitrary, and the animals seem to produce them with a degree of volition (as opposed to relatively automatic conditioned behaviors or unconditioned instincts, usually including facial expressions).”

“Many researchers argue that animal communication lacks a key aspect of human language, that is, the creation of new patterns of signs under varied circumstances. (In contrast, for example, humans routinely produce entirely new combinations of words.)”

If one doubts the ability of animals to communicate at a level worthy enough to be considered in possession of a language, consider the behavior observed in dolphins.  Rewards and/or punishments have long been used to train animals to perform specific tasks on demand.  Safina tells the tale of two dolphins who were trained by Karen Pryor in the 1960s to respond to a signal to “do something new.”  Think about that for a moment.  To get an animal to understand the concept of “do something you haven’t done before” is quite impressive.  To get two animals to then collaborate on deciding what that something new should be and then execute it is something that humans would have trouble dealing with.

“When the Hawaiian bottlenose dolphins Phoenix and Akeakamai got the signal to ‘do something new,’ they would swim to the center of the pool and circle underwater for a few seconds, and then do something entirely unexpected.  For instance, they might both shoot straight up through the surface in perfect unison and spin clockwise while squirting water from their mouths.  None of that performance was trained.  ‘It looks to us absolutely mysterious.’ researcher Lou Herman related.  ‘We don’t know how they do it.’  It seems as if they confer using some form of language to plan and execute a complex new stunt.  If there’s another way of doing it, or what that might be, or whether there’s some other way to communicate that humans can’t quite imagine—dolphin telepathy?—no human knows.  Whatever it is, for the dolphins it’s apparently as routine and natural as human kids saying, ‘Hey, let’s do this…’”

The method of communication between dolphins that is recognized by humans does not seem to be consistent with such complex behavior.

“From everything we understand at present, it appears that dolphins’ whistles convey information that is simple and repetitive, not complex, not specific, not highly patterned; not a word based, large-vocabulary, syntax-equipped language.  Yet few who love dolphins—myself included—really want to accept that.  The calls just sound too complicated and varied.  And so, waiting, we listen, hoping to someday hear more.”

Could dolphins have developed a language that was too complex for humans to comprehend?  Or, might they have developed a method of communication that humans have yet to even detect?

Safina has a tale to tell about dolphins that brings us ever closer to the twilight zone.  It was recorded by a researcher named Denise Herzog who had been spending time studying a group of free-living dolphins in the Bahamas.

“At the beginning of one research trip, as Herzog’s vessel approached the familiar dolphins she had been studying, they ‘greeted us but they acted very unusual,’ not coming within fifty feet of the boat.  They refused invitations to bow-ride, also odd.  And when the captain slipped into the water, one came briefly nearer and then suddenly fled.”

“At that point, someone discovered that one of the people aboard had just died during a nap in his bunk.  Spooky enough.  But then as the boat turned to head back to port, ‘the dolphins came to the side of our boat, not riding the bow as usual but instead flanking us fifty feet away in an aquatic escort….they paralleled us in an organized fashion.’  After the crew had attended to the sad business at hand, when the boat returned to the dolphin area, ‘the dolphins greeted us normally, rode the bow, and frolicked like they normally did.’  After twenty-five years with those dolphins, Herzog never again saw them behave the way they did when the boat had a dead man aboard.  Perhaps in a way we don’t understand, dolphin sonar lets them scan inside a boat and somehow realize and communicate among one another that a man in a bunk has a heart that is still.  Perhaps they detected that a human had died using another sensory system, one that we humans neither possess nor suspect.  And what does it mean for dolphins to become solemn in response to a human death?”

Humans seem determined to maintain their assumed perch as the best that evolution has provided.  Perhaps it would be wiser to recognize that other animals, such as elephants, whales, wolves and dolphins, are more appropriately considered brothers and sisters rather than subspecies.  We might yet have a lot to learn from our near kin.

The interested reader might find these articles informative:

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