Animals Talk To Each Other And Take Turns During Conversation

The whistles of dolphins, low rumbling of elephants, soft chirps of naked mole rats and "rapping" of clawed frogs might be somewhat lost in translation. The findings might one day help scientists pinpoint the origin of human speech.

Marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) take 3000-5000 ms between turn-taking exchanges.

An worldwide team of researchers reviewed the current scientific literature on animal communication.

Two-way conversations - once thought to be a trait unique to our species - are common across the animal kingdom. But once this task was complete, the researchers were impressed to learn about how complex animal communication really is.

In a study, which was recently published in the journal Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, the researchers noted that there are core similarities between how human and animals employ communication.


Cooperative turn-taking has been suggested as an ancient mechanism of the language system bridging the existing gap between the articulate human species and our inarticulate primate cousins. In some species of songbird, the latency between notes produced by two different birds is less than 50 milliseconds. Sperm whales were the slowest talkers, waiting about two seconds before "replying". We, humans, lie somewhere in the middle, producing utterances with gaps of around 200 milliseconds between turns.

While many studies have been conducted into turn-taking behaviour in animals, we know remarkably little about it, partly because the literature is so fragmented that large-scale cross-species comparison is all but impossible, according to the researchers.

It's quite likely that this turn-taking behavior underlies the evolution of human speech so a more systematic cross-species examination could render striking results. Simone Pika from the Department of Primatology at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, one of the initiators and first author of the study. concludes: "Direct comparisons of turn-taking skills of nonhuman animals in relation to language origins are highly constrained by lack of data, the application of different terms, methodological designs, and study environments".

To improve research efforts, the researchers propose a new framework, which looks to enable comparative research through focusing on four key elements that characterize human conversations.

This new field of comparative turn-taking will thus shed light on one of the "hardest" problems in science by testing whether turn-taking had profound downstream effects on human culture and cooperation, and laid the foundation for the evolution of language. The new field of comparative turn-taking could help solve one of the most hard problems in science through testing whether turn-taking had significant downstream effects on human culture and cooperation, and determine whether it may have laid the foundation for the evolution of language.

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