Animal communication

Today’s edition of The Scientist contained this interesting report:

Gorilla baby talk

FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS, MARIEKE IJSENDOORN-KUIJPERS

Gorillas communicate differently with their young than to other adults, much the same way humans do, according to a study published May 29 in the American Journal of Primatology. Instead of vocal signals, however, the team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology watched mother gorillas’ hand gestures and facial expressions for signs of baby talk. They found that the mothers used similar signals to those used in adult groups, such as a hand on the head to mean “stop it,” but used them far more frequently with youngsters.

Tactile gestures in general were more prevalent when Mom was talking to baby, and the researchers believe this is partly to help the youngsters learn to use the language of the group. The finding also hints that parent gorillas know that they have to communicate more carefully with infants who have fewer skills.

Does this mean that gorillas who have not been taught sign language by humans are using it themselves? How do the researcher know what each sign means? See my article about how to interpret animal body language. And for a more in-depth, philosophical reflection on the difficulties involved in interpreting animals’ mental states from their behaviour – as well as a whimsical exploration of whether animals can be held to be morally guilty – see my article Dogs and the “guilty mind”.

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