While we have already had Disney characters talking and singing for a few years now, what if we could really understand what animals were saying? The idea still seems far-fetched, but perhaps we are getting closer than we think.
A recently-published paper that appeared in Linguistics and Philosophy and was written about in Scientific American detailed some research on making sense of monkey communication. A team of scientists did experiments in the Tai Forest and on Tiwai Island on the African continent. They recorded and examined the sounds the monkeys made to communicate threats like the presence of a leopard or a circling eagle, or even falling branches. In their studies, the scientists were able to decipher the meanings of several monkey sounds. For example, among the monkeys in the Tai Forest the “hok” sound represented an eagle and the “krak” sound represented a leopard. More interestingly, the scientists found what seem to be monkey dialects, which appear to function just like human dialects.
In the Tai Forest, leopards are a threat to the monkeys, but on Tiwai Island, there are simply no leopards there. The “krak” sound used to warn other monkeys of a leopard in the Tai Forest was also used on Tiwai Island, but there the sound translated into a more generalized alarm call for a ground-based threat. So they determined that “hok” was for an air-based threat and “krak” was for a more general kind of alert. Like humans and their communication, the monkeys adapted their messages to their own reality and circumstances, and their need to accurately communicate with each other. Even though the findings are fascinating, some experts highlight the need for follow-up studies to test what are essentially hypotheses.
It is just as well. While I like Disney movies, I am not sure I am ready to hear what my cat has to say.