Talking to the animals

Friday 1 August 2008

From chattering monkeys to whistling dolphins and singing birds, experts in how animals communicate with each other using sounds will gather at the University of St Andrews this weekend for a major conference on the subject.

The event will highlight the phenomenal range of studies currently underway into how animals communicate, from attracting mates to scaring off enemies.

Topics will include the vocal repertoire of a week old infant giant panda, how song birds cope with noisy urban conditions and how ‘teen stress’ affects song learning in zebra finches.

Organised by St Andrews’ researchers Dr Vincent Janik and Professor Klaus Zuberbuhler, with Professor Nicola Clayton from Cambridge, who did her PhD in St Andrews, the event will bring together 140 leading experts from around the world.  From the domestic to the exotic, researchers will reveal the behaviour of a wide range of birds and mammals from humble blackbirds and chaffinches to African wild dogs and killer whales.

Hosted by the University’s Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, a world-class base for research on animal traditions, culture and learning, the event is being held in honour of St Andrews’ Professor of Natural History, Peter Slater, a leading expert in bird song who retires this year.

Dr Janik, a specialist in communication in marine mammals and a member of the School of Biology’s Bird and Mammal Sound Communication Group, said, “Animal communication is a fascinating subject and I am delighted that we managed to attract so many leaders in this field to St Andrews to present their most recent findings. It will give us an opportunity to advance discussions on such important topics as the impacts of anthropogenic noise on animals and how complexity in communication relates to animal cognition.”

Keynote speakers during the three day event will include distinguished zoologist and broadcaster, Aubrey Manning, who will be joined by fellow behavioural scientists from around the globe.  St Andrews’ research under the spotlight will include current studies into communication in chimpanzees, chaffinches, bottlenose dolphins, grey seals and killer whales.

Other birds and mammals on which studies will be presented include cheetahs, canaries, ravens, Asian elephants, horses, the domestic dog, the Australian sea lion, Japanese jungle crows, howler monkeys, African grey parrots, fallow bucks, blue whales, magpies, meercats, nightingales and zebra finches.

Specific studies under the spotlight look at how duetting in nocturnal mammals may prevent infanticide, how willow warblers can assess a rival’s fighting ability by the frequency of his song and how singing birds cope under noisy urban conditions.

St Andrews’ researchers have made important advances in the understanding of animal communication, with a range of projects confirming that animals have complex vocal abilities that allow them to communicate with each other.

Conference organiser Dr Janik has worked on marine mammal communication for over a decade. He discovered that bottlenose dolphins name themselves using unique `signature¿ whistles and copy those of fellow dolphins to stay in touch with them. Recent findings from Dr Janik’s group will be presented at this conference and include the reactions of grey seals to underwater sounds and the geographic variation of dolphin communication.

Fellow organiser Professor Zuberbuhler has conducted a number of important studies relating to communication in monkeys and chimpanzees, which suggest that they have far more complex vocal capabilities than had previously been thought.  In 2006 he reported that gibbons have developed an unusual way of scaring off predators – by singing to them – and last month revealed that chimps keep quiet during sex so that other females don’t find out about it.

Professor Slater, who joined St Andrews in 1984 as Professor of Natural History, has been studying bird song for 30 years.  He has made important advances in our understanding of song development in zebra finches and on song use in chaffinches. Most recently he has become interested in the little understood phenomenon of duetting in birds and, in his retirement, hopes to continue with these studies in Latin America.

He said, “I am thrilled that so many of my friends and colleagues are coming together for this conference in St Andrews. With our language, we obviously communicate primarily with sounds and, at a simpler level, this is true of many other mammals and birds. Few other areas of animal behaviour illustrate so richly the great diversity of nature.”

The conference Vocal Communication in Birds and Mammals is being held at the University of St Andrews, 31 July-2 August 2008.


















Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected]
Ref:  Talking to the animals 300708
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