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ETpro's avatar

Why would animals have a wide range of vocalizations if they have no communication value?

Asked by ETpro (34552points) March 28th, 2011

Most higher order animals have a series of different vocalizations they make. Without serious study of a species, we may associate one simple sound with it. Horses whinny and neigh, elephants trumpet (because they can), pigs grunt. But scientists who record and study vocalizations of a species find they have a range of different sounds. Do you think the sounds are just letting off steam, or do they communicate something about how the animal feels that others of it’s kind can understand?

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15 Answers

syz's avatar

By communication value, are you referring to language? Vocalizations are very useful for intra-species communication (especially in social animals), territory establishment, attracting mates, creating bonds with offspring, and alarms, just to name a few.

YoBob's avatar

Who says they have no communication value?

While such vocalizations are generally not the abstract symbolic communication mechanism that we humans enjoy, they are quite effective at conveying meaning, even across species. As any dog owner can tell you, you an generally tell if a dog is saying “I’m happy to see you”, or “Let’s play”, or “There’s really something you should know about” just by the tone/character of the vocalization.

thorninmud's avatar

There is a biologist at Northern Arizona University, Con Slobodchikoff, who has studied Prairie Dog barks, and found them to convey amazingly detailed information. The barks all sound the same to us, but running them through spectral analysis reveals subtle tonal differences. He’s done experiments that suggest the barks convey information about the size, color and shape of intruders in their environment. He has identified about 20 “words” in the Prairie Dog lexicon. This would be the most semantically complex wild animal communication we’ve found to date. Here’s an article about his work.

ETpro's avatar

@syz I meant communication in the broader sense you are using, not in symbolic language al la human beings. But I just ran across a video of a talking elephant and a talking dog so talking goes beyond just Parrots and Mayan Birds. By the way, a budgie named Puck won the Guinness Record for size of bird vocabulary in 1995 with 1,728 words. Puck was able to ask for things, so clearly understood the meaning of at least some of the sounds he had memorized. Here’s another budgie talking his head off


marinelife's avatar

They definitely communicate different things. We just don’t understand them.

ETpro's avatar

@thorninmud & @marinelife Spoony THE cat has a wide and varied range of vocalizations and body language, and by really getting to know here I’ve been able to discern what a good deal of it means. Incredibly, as she has recognized that she can use her vocalizations to communicate with me, she’s expanded her repetoire and come to rely on it much more. It’s a bit embarrassing that while we consider ourselves the epitome of animal intelligence, we seem less adept at learning their communication than they are at learning ours.

JilltheTooth's avatar

Do I remember correctly that Spoony is the one that that won’t allow your wife to converse?

Seelix's avatar

Animals’ vocalizations definitely have communication value. Have you ever had two dogs or two cats? They definitely communicate. My female is skittery and definitely on the bottom of the totem pole – you should hear her screech when my male gets too close to her cha-cha.

Animals don’t have a complex language with grammatical rules and such, but they definitely communicate, at least within their own species.

ETpro's avatar

@JilltheTooth Yep. She still does that too. Strange.

@Seelix Thanks. Indeed they do. They can even learn to send signals other species recognize. Like the roar of a male lion if you are getting too close to his pride.

marinelife's avatar

@ETpro I was making a generalization. I know my dog’s different vocalizations well, and the two of us talk to each other using them. (Well, I answer in words, but he understands those too.)

ETpro's avatar

@marinelife Same here with Spoony. I can actually do a reasonable copy of some of her sounds. She seems to grasp that when she asks for fish—she loves some canned tuna in the evening—and I echo back her request for fish sound, I’m confirming that I heard her. It’s kind of like an astronaut saying, “Roger that.”

mattbrowne's avatar

For the same reasons humans have an appendix.

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne That would be a possibility to evaluate. But observation says that they do use sounds to communicate with one another.

mattbrowne's avatar

@ETpro – Yes, but perhaps some sounds only had a meaning in the distant past and are now meaningless remnants. Genes do mutate slowly.

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne Probably so. Some of my more guttural sounds are meaningless to those around me, but would probably make perfect sense to a cave man. :-)

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