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When animals talk, a Girton Fellow is listening

Dr Arik Kershenbaum sitting in his Girton College Office with shelves full of books behind

From the howls of wolves in Yellowstone National Park to the call of gibbons in the jungles of Viet Nam, deciphering meaning from animal vocal communication is a driving force behind Girton College Lecturer and Fellow Dr Arik Kershenbaum’s new book ‘Why Animals Talk’.

‘Meaning is a very human-centric concept. We know what meaning is because our language has meaning. It’s not at all clear whether animal communication has meaning in the same sense. But certainly the calls I study have some sort of meaning, so the overall goal is to understand what information is hidden.’

A zoologist and world-leading expert in animal vocal communication, Dr Kershenbaum’s ‘Why Animals Talk’ explores how social animals depend on communication for survival. Unlocking these meanings can, at times, make a huge difference to conservation efforts, particularly in cases where animals reside in extremely remote locations, yet require effective monitoring.

In Viet Nam, for example, Dr Kershenbaum examines the sounds of the Cao-vit gibbon, one of the world’s rarest primates. There are only around 70 of the species left living in remote jungle areas of northern Viet Nam. But through their sounds, park rangers and researchers can attempt to understand interactions between different groups of the species.   

‘How do they establish their territories? How do they maintain their territories? These are key questions for a species like the Cao-vit gibbon. When there’s such a tiny population it’s absolutely key to encourage them to disperse, so the young animals venture out and create new groups because that’s how you build the population. But if they're not doing that because they're surrounded by enemy gibbons or other threats, that’s a big problem, so understanding the group dynamics is really important. Without seeing them, we can still determine where they are from the sound, but also look at how their songs moderate the interactions between groups.’

Over in the US and much of Europe, species of wolves have easily evaded human study through nocturnal activity across vast areas of land. By tracking them through their sounds, however, conservationists can follow exactly where they are at all times. 

‘We record their howls 24/7, which allows us to triangulate their movements to see if we can make a link between the sounds they make and their behaviours. At the simplest level, we want to know if there's a particular howl that is a signature of a particular pack – so if one pack howls one way, another pack howls another way, you can tell the difference between them, which would have conservation implications. But more interesting really is what is the meaning behind these howls. Are they warning each other that something is there? Is there one howl that means come here and another howl that means go away?’

Having spent periods in Romania, Spain, Italy, and most recently, Yellowstone National Park in the United States, Dr Kershenbaum hopes to unlock key insights which could ultimately serve to protect these packs.

‘When it comes to wolves, there are conservation issues as well as conflicts with livestock. So we would like to know whether ultimately, we could at some point talk to the wolves and tell them not to go towards certain areas.’

In ‘Why Animals Talk’, Dr Kershenbaum also explores communication between dolphins and humans. Although notoriously difficult to work with, he gleaned fascinating insights from studying both wild dolphins in the Red Sea in Israel and dolphins in captivity. The captive animals especially are very keen to engage with humans, will play games and respond with different sounds to questions posed by humans. The challenge, as with the other species he studies, is to attempt to decipher some meaning from these responses. 

It’s not at all clear that animal communication has meaning in the same sense as human language has meaning. But if you interpret meaning in a ‘fuzzier’ sort of way, then certainly these calls have meaning. So we want to know what they mean. Sometimes certain animals will have lots of different meanings; others will have very few. The big goal is to is to understand what information is there and what will that give us?’

What’s clear to Dr Kershenbaum is that fully understanding animals is impossible without understanding the intricacies of their vocal communication. But could unlocking the meaning behind these species’ communications reveal secrets about human language?

‘We’ve not got a handle on understanding how and why human language evolved. We have no idea. You can't do that directly from studying animals because they don't have language, but it does give us a lot of insights into the nature of meaning, the nature of information and how widespread complex communication is across species. Studying this can help us to understand a little bit more about what our ancient ancestors were like and how they communicated and even, perhaps, a little bit about how human language evolved.’

  • ‘Why Animals Talk’ is out on 25 January 2024. Find out more on Penguin Books.