Banded mongooses structure monosyllabic sounds in a similar way to humans

Jan 10, 2013
Even the monosyllabic call of the banded mongoose is structured and thus comparable with the vowel and consonant system of human speech. Credit: UZH

Animals are more eloquent than previously assumed. Even the monosyllabic call of the banded mongoose is structured and thus comparable with the vowel and consonant system of human speech. Behavioral biologists from the University of Zurich have thus become the first to demonstrate that animals communicate with even smaller sound units than syllables.

When humans speak, they structure individual with the aid of vowels and consonants. Due to their anatomy, animals can only produce a limited number of distinguishable sounds and calls. Complex animal sound expressions such as whale and are formed because smaller sound units – so-called "syllables" or "phonocodes" – are repeatedly combined into new arrangements. However, it was previously assumed that monosyllabic sound expressions such as contact or alarm calls do not have any combinational structures. Behavioral biologist Marta Manser and her doctoral student David Jansen from the University of Zurich have now proved that the monosyllabic calls of banded mongooses are structured and contain different information. They thus demonstrate for the first time that animals also have a sound expression structure that bears a certain similarity to the vowel and consonant system of human speech.

Single syllable provides information on the identity and activity of the caller. Credit: UZH

Single syllable provides information on the identity and activity of the caller

The research was conducted on wild banded mongooses at a research station in Uganda. For their study, the scientists used a combination of detailed behavior observations, recordings of calls and acoustic analyses of contact calls. Such a call lasts for between 50 and 150 milliseconds and can be construed as a single 'syllable'. Jansen and his colleagues now reveal that, despite their brevity, the monosyllabic calls of banded mongooses exhibit several temporally segregated vocal signatures. They suspected that these were important so studied the individual calls for evidence of and behavior. "The initial sound of the call provides information on the identity of the animal calling," explains Jansen. The second more tonal part of the call, which is similar to a , however, indicates the caller's current activity.

Structured single syllables in animals not an exception?

Manser and her team are thus the first to demonstrate that animals also structure single syllables – much like vowels and consonants in . The researchers are convinced that the banded mongoose is not the only animal species that is able to structure syllables. They assume that the phenomenon was overlooked in scientific studies thus far. For instance, they point out that frogs and bats also structure single syllables. "The example of banded shows that so-called simple animal sound expressions might be far more complex than was previously thought possible."

Explore further: Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

More information: David A.W.A.M. Jansen, Michael A. Cant, and Marta B. Manser. Segmental concatenation of individual signatures and context cues in banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) close calls. BMC Biology. doi:10.1186/1741-7007-10-97

Related Stories

Researchers studying how singing bats communicate

Oct 18, 2007

Bats are the most vocal mammals other than humans, and understanding how they communicate during their nocturnal outings could lead to better treatments for human speech disorders, say researchers at Texas A&M University.

The Link Between Birdsong And Human Language

Nov 10, 2009

Scientists studying how Bengalese finches use sets of syllables to communicate are a step closer to understanding how humans develop and use vocabulary. After studying the neural networks in finch brains, ...

Recommended for you

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

13 hours ago

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

15 hours ago

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

15 hours ago

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Deadly human pathogen Cryptococcus fully sequenced

Within each strand of DNA lies the blueprint for building an organism, along with the keys to its evolution and survival. These genetic instructions can give valuable insight into why pathogens like Cryptococcus ne ...

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...