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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Animal communication

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Animal communication is first and foremost about signal transmission and aims to understand how communication occurs. It is a field that has contributed to and been inspired by other fields, from information technology to neuroscience, in finding ever better methods to eavesdrop on the actual ‘message’ that forms the basis of communication. Much of this review deals with vocal communication as an example of the questions that research on communication has tried to answer and it provides an historical overview of the theoretical arguments proposed. Topics covered include signal transmission in different environments and different species, referential signaling, and intentionality. The contention is that animal communication may reveal significant thought processes that enable some individuals in a small number of species so far investigated to anticipate what conspecifics might do, although some researchers think of such behavior as adaptive or worth dismissing as anthropomorphizing. The review further points out that some species are more likely than others to develop more complex communication patterns. It is a matter of asking how animals categorize their world and which concepts require cognitive processes and which are adaptive. The review concludes with questions of life history, social learning, and decision making, all criteria that have remained relatively unexplored in communication research. Long‐lived, cooperative social animals have so far offered especially exciting prospects for investigation. There are ample opportunities and now very advanced technologies as well to tap further into expressions of memory of signals, be they vocal or expressed in other modalities. WIREs Cogn Sci 2014, 5:661–677. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1321 This article is categorized under: Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition Neuroscience > Behavior Neuroscience > Cognition
A simple model of vocal communication. Sender (A) on the left, vocalizes and the sounds are heard by the receiver (B). Typically, however, the signal will not arrive in the same state in which it was at the point of departure. Distance alone makes the amplitude of the sound diminish (called attenuation). Other factors can cause a decrease or even a distortion: ‘a’ signifies another sound source of a similar frequency which makes it more difficult to perceive the signal sent from A past point a; ‘b’ represents a typical range of possible obstructions, such as trees and shrubs, refracting the sound; ‘c’ is an often invisible obstruction, such as sounds created by wind, updrafts, and fog, able to distort sounds. At the very least, B will receive a signal of lower amplitude than at which the signal was sent. In other words, noise and distortions can become a real problem for communication.
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Diagram describing the process of signal transfer. A sender may see a predator (visual experience), the image is processed in the brain (representational integration or dissociation). The image is recognized (memory) and identified as representing danger—then this bundled information, consisting of the visual image just seen plus the interpretation of it drawn from memory (be it acquired by experience or learning), is followed by a translation into a different modality, as a vocal signal—heard by receiver—and in this case there are even more processes involved because it may involve assessment of quality of signal, origin of caller, seriousness of event, location, and urgency plus judging the auditory signal across space taking into account attenuation and possible distortion; then the receiver translates the auditory signal received into a representational/visual concept and on this basis makes a decision on whether or how to act in response.
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Settling of boarder dispute by negotiation and vocal signal. Australian magpies, Gymnorhina tibicen, are territorial birds and use a ritualized caroling call, sometimes in duet with their lifelong partner, to indicate permanent occupancy. At close range, ritualized signals and vocalizations can be a very energy‐efficient way of solving a conflict without anyone getting hurt. The territorial boarder is clearly marked on the image. In the upper image two neighbouring magpie groups meet on the ground. Instead of fighting, the two magpie males (A and B), lower image, approached each other from either side of the boarder. Both then paraded in a slow and deliberate way up and down that stretch of boarder. Then they stopped and aligned with each other, both caroling. The female of group A (Aa) then crossed the boarder, thought to be an appeasement gesture, and aligned herself in opposite direction with the other female (Bb). These two are adult females of the respective group and long established breeding pairs. Once the two females had lined up, they too began caroling with each other. In a second round of caroling, A started, followed by Aa, then B, followed by Bb. In other words, the second bout of caroling was a caroling duet of the breeding partners rather than of the ones facing each other off. After a third bout in the same formation, the caroling birds dispersed and walked back to where they had come from (to left of the boarder for A and Aa, and right for B and Bb). Later observations showed that the group on the right did not move past that line, nor did the group on the left. Group B had infringed the boarders but did not do so again. The neighbors had reached a genuine and lasting peace for the season. (Adapted from Kaplan, see Ref .)
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Neuroscience > Cognition
Neuroscience > Behavior
Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition

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