Turns Out Animals Are Remarkably Polite And Wait Their Turn When They Chat

Two hippos having a chat at Pilanesberg national park in South Africa. Olaf Holland/Shutterstock

Animals get such a bad rap for being rude, but beyond their tendency to bite and throw poop, it sounds like animal communication can be remarkably polite. A new study looked to bridge the gap between our knowledge of human and animal communication. Turns out, it’s perhaps not as wide as it first seems.

One of their biggest discoveries was finding that many animal species communicate through a turn-taking system of sounds, just like humans having a two-way conversation.

Whether it’s the chirp of a songbird or the oo-ah-ah of a chimpanzee, turn-taking appears to be a fundamental part of communication across many animal species. This, the study argues, could help to solve the mystery of how complex language evolved, with cooperative turn-taking acting a bit like a very basic form of a language system.

Although there are very clear similarities between humans chatting and turn-based animal communication, the time between each turn varied from animal to animal. Take, for example, the human, which has an average time-window of 0 to 500 milliseconds between each person communicating. Non-human species range from less than 50 milliseconds, like the songs of plain-tailed wrens, to 5,000 milliseconds between the calls of the common marmosets.

Most incredible of all, some animals even seem to get disgruntled when other animals interrupt them, and will also desperately avoid overlapping during their communications, lest they offend their conversation partner. “European starlings prefer overlap avoidance," the authors explain. "If overlap occurs, individuals become silent or fly away, suggesting that overlapping may be treated, in this species, as a violation of socially accepted rules of turn-taking." 

This huge international project, recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, involved a large-scale review of the evidence looking at different species communication. While there’s plenty of studies on the matter, the research is largely fragmented and often sticks to one species, making it hard to draw cross-species comparisons.

For one thing, differing terminology has held back some comparisons. A common form of communication between songbirds is known as duetting, in which one member of the pair starts a song that is then continued by the other member. The pair may then take a few turns until the song is complete. It turns out, monkeys use an extremely similar system with their calls, but researchers have always referred to it as "antiphonal calls".

"Direct comparisons of turn-taking skills of nonhuman animals in relation to language origins are highly constrained by lack of data, the application of different terms, methodological designs, and study environments,” Simone Pika, the Department of Primatology at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, said in a statement.

"Such a framework will allow researchers to trace the evolutionary history of this remarkable turn-taking behavior and address longstanding questions about the origins of human language."

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