Reiss’s research on dolphin cognition is a unique project that began in the 1980s. This was a time when funding cuts in animal communication research occurred due to the retraction of a hyped claim about a chimpanzee being trained to use sign language to communicate with humans. In a 1993 study, Reiss provided bottlenose dolphins with an underwater keypad that allowed them to select specific toys. The toys were then delivered with computer-generated whistles, similar to a vending machine. Interestingly, the dolphins started mimicking the computer-generated whistles when playing with the corresponding toys, showing a resemblance to the early stages of language acquisition in children.
To expand their research, the scientists wanted to observe how octopuses engage with an interactive platform. However, they were unsure if the solitary cephalopod would find such a device interesting. The octopus had previously responded to displeasure by releasing ink and turning the tank water black, making it invisible. Unlocking her communicative abilities might require her to find the scientists equally fascinating as they found her.
Studying animals trapped in cages and tanks can uncover their hidden capabilities. However, understanding the full range of animal communication requires observing them in the wild. Previous studies often mistakenly equated general communication, which involves individuals deriving meaning from signals sent by others, with language’s more complex and flexible system. In a significant 1980 study, researchers used the “playback” technique to decipher the meaning of alarm calls issued by vervet monkeys in Kenya. Playback of a vervet’s bark-like call when encountering a leopard caused other vervets to seek refuge in trees. Similarly, calls made in response to seeing an eagle or a python led vervets to direct their attention to the sky or the ground, respectively.
The discovery of a “rudimentary ‘language'” in vervet monkeys was heralded in The New York Times. However, critics argued that these calls might not possess any linguistic properties. Instead, they could be involuntary sounds driven by emotions, much like the cry of a hungry baby. While such involuntary expressions convey information, they lack the capability for discussing events separated by time and space. For instance, a vervet’s fearful barks could alert others to the presence of a leopard, but they couldn’t convey details about “the really smelly leopard who showed up at the ravine yesterday morning.”
Toshitaka Suzuki, an ethologist at the University of Tokyo, devised a method to distinguish intentional calls from involuntary ones. He used the analogy of hearing the word “dog” and then visualizing a dog, emphasizing the influence of words on our perception of objects. Suzuki conducted playback studies on Japanese tits, songbirds found in East Asian forests. He discovered that these birds emit a distinct vocalization when encountering snakes, which he called the “jar jar” call. When other Japanese tits heard a recording of this call, they would search the ground as if looking for a snake. To further investigate their understanding, Suzuki introduced an eight-inch stick dragged along a tree’s surface using hidden strings. Normally, the birds ignored the stick as if it were a passing cloud. However, when the “jar jar” call was played, they approached the stick, seemingly examining if it was a snake. Like a word, the “jar jar” call altered their perception.
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