Sound Check: Deciphering the Mysterious Calls of Animals, from Birds to Belugas
A new book looks at the fascinating world of animal voices, and the insight they might provide into human communication.
Menino visits Africa’s Kalahari Desert to observe the social life of meerkats. They evolved warning calls for their families that not only distinguish the identity of an approaching predator (a hawk from the air, a jackal on foot, a snake lurking nearby) but also the urgency of the threat (“Be careful” or “RUN!”). Menino cautions there are animal liars, too. Some scientists suspect that a male California ground squirrel may sound an alarm only to send his fellows scampering for cover while he is left alone with a potential mate.
Technological advances also permit researchers to follow animals into otherwise inaccessible environments. In a fjord off the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, scientists track belugas in water as deep as 600 feet. These sociable whales use a series of clicks, twitters, and chirps to navigate, find food, and stay together. Researchers lower sensitive hydrophones into the belugas’ midst to begin separating signature voices of individuals through digital sound precision. By photographing each as it surfaces and identifying it by the varied scars and other marks on its body, then trying to match the individuals with the sound print of their voices, researchers may assemble a picture of the belugas’ social structure and find ways to help them survive.
Ultimately the flurry of studies into animal voices might provide insight into our own voices. Have some uses of animal signals been passed on to humans during the incredibly long, tinkering march of evolution? Menino answers that the issue is “the subject of lively scientific speculation. Eventually this speculation may lead to some understanding of what actually happened in the gap between animals and humans.”