Animals also have something to say

Angela Stoger – On “About mice singing and elephants whistling”

People’s language is unique – and this is one of the first lessons you learn as a linguistics student. We’re the only kind who can talk about things that aren’t here and now, and keep coming up with new words, incorporating those sentences into others (“I think you hope he finds that…”). It’s all very clever, of course, but that doesn’t mean communicating with animals equals some instinctive growls, hissing, and whistles. Austrian researcher Angela Stoger showed in her book About Singing Mice and Elephants – How Animals Communicate and What We Can Learn If We Really Listen to them, recently published in Dutch translation, that animals have more consciousness and sensation than men attribute to them.

Stöger is a cognitive biologist who specializes in bioacoustics and vocal communication. A fairly young field, in part because the technology required (sensitive microphones, cameras, storage media, analysis software) was not previously available. In her book, Austrian shows in an engaging way how biometric voice search works and what has been found.

The whole animal kingdom

Many of the examples that Stoeger gave come from elephants, and she has done a lot of research on herself. They can trumpet, although we still don’t understand exactly how they do so with their long vocal cords, which can only produce low sounds. They can also “ratt” – so low that we can feel it rather than hear it. It has also been shown that some African elephants are able to squeak, by pressing one nostril and sucking air in with the other.

But not only the elephant, but the entire animal kingdom is reviewed in the book. Of the giraffes, which Stoeger and his colleagues have shown are actually noisy: long, low tones during the night hours. To drongo, a bird that imitates the calls of alarm, for example, meerkats, so that it can steal its prey. From koalas, who can roar admirably when they are looking for a female. For humpback whales, which form a harmonious tone with their long underwater sounds. And to the cheetah, which communicates with its peers with an amazingly loud voice during the hunt, perhaps so as not to scare the prey away.

Most of the sounds described by QR code are supported, so you can listen to the sounds by yourself.

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Zoos, sanctuaries and wildlife

The great thing about the book is that Stöger not only describes the animals’ communicative cues, but also shows how they conduct their research. She conducts anatomical research to determine how animals’ “speech organs” function. She studies their droppings so that you can say something about the function of animal sounds based on the level of the hormone (attraction of partners, expression of tension, etc.). It analyzes the generated audio signals.

In addition, she spends a lot of time in zoos, sanctuaries and “in the wild” observing and recording animals. With a special long-legged camera connected to several sensitive microphones, she could accurately identify which animal in the herd was “speaking”. And – in the case of an elephant – does the sound come from its mouth or from its trunk?

Stoeger describes zoos as “a kind of laboratory for animal behaviorists,” which is somewhat dubious for true animal lovers. It is of course easier to observe the animals there than in the wild, but they are also removed from their natural habitat. The researcher defends the practice by saying that there is a “very productive interaction” between science and zoos: new ideas lead to a better understanding and a more animal-friendly way of preserving animals. Additionally, behavioral experiments provide animals with a distraction in their usually somewhat boring days.

justification of human behavior

With her book Stöger hopes to convince people that animals communicate, with each other and with us. In this way, too, they have awareness and feeling. “If we accept that animals feel the same way we do, how can we justify our attitude toward animals?” she asks. Of the many tales of animals that communicate with them trace facts that, according to them, we can no longer ignore. Pleasure hunting, intensive livestock rearing, long-term animal transportation, and mother-calf separation are all human behaviors that can no longer be defended.

Stöger’s story is generally compelling. Sometimes she gets a little goofy, especially when it comes to her dogs. But after reading her book, you can’t help but conclude that animals have consciousness and communicate – and that we should listen a little better.

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