Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Animal intelligence and vocal learning (2)

Recently, I have noticed a number of articles on scientific studies relating to animal intelligence and/or animal language (eg, birds, ducklings, whales). These studies have one thing in common: animal intelligence is often significantly underestimated by humans. Birds might even be the most intelligent animal species. Latter might be promising as birds “talk” and 3 groups of birds even have vocal learning ability (BBC). Also see my 19 March 2015 blog (part 1).

To an animal, humans produce “sounds”. Only humans know that these sounds are actually a language in which we meaningfully communicate with each other. Some animals are able to mimic our human sounds through vocal learning. There are only a few species in nature that can learn to produce new sounds: humans, bats, elephants, pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), cetaceans (dolphins and whales) and parrots, songbirds, and hummingbirds (eg, BBC, Wiki).

As far as science is now aware of, vocal learning requires 3 attributes: voice muscles, forebrain, and the “activation” of a set of over 50 specific speech genes. Latter 2 are relatively new discoveries (eg, Jarvis 2004, Jarvis 2014). BBC: “Humans, the best vocal learners, can learn and produce countless different sounds. Beluga whales and dolphins also naturally learn hundreds of new vocalizations throughout their lives. Some parrots and songbirds are prolific learners as well, sometimes even picking up sounds from other species and objects around them”.

BBC: “Most animals are not vocal learners. They only produce the calls that they are born with: for example, cows moo, dogs bark, and pigeons coo. These animals are unable to imitate new sounds”. The above group has a striking exception: apes. Technically they could mimic new sounds but in general apes do not. There’s only one known exception: Tilda, an orangutan.

Vocal learning is not enough for animal-human communication. Most animals mimic sounds because they get rewards and/or they just “play” with human caretakers. For some animals in captivity, it may be a way of bonding with their human caretakers. In general, animals do not expect a human to act after mimicking a human sound. The Indian elephant Koshik understands a Korean “lie down” command, is able to mimic that Korean command, but doesn’t understand its meaning.

Clearly, mimicking human sounds is not enough to establish animal-human communication. There is only 1 known exception in nature: an African grey parrot named AlexBBC: “Not only could he say dozens of English words clearly, he used them to identify objects, colours, shapes, and numbers”.

BBC: “Mimicking human sounds may have an extra benefit for these parrots, above and beyond simple bonding, says Dr. Irene Pepperberg. It gives them control over their lives. They learn words and then use them to ask for toys or treats they want, or to go to specific places”.

It’s quite possible that a highly intelligent bird like an African grey parrot would some day be able to answer human questions. The impact of such animal-human communication may well be beyond our current imagination.

Coldplay – Paradise / parrot dies (2011) – artists, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2 


Dr. Irene Pepperberg, animal cognition scientist & Alex, the African grey parrot


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