10 Animals That Can Speak for Themselves

How do the calls of monkeys, dolphins and gorillas -- among others -- resemble human language?

Titi monkey-talk has just been deciphered, with researchers now comparing the communication of these small primates to those of humans. The study, published in the latest issue of Biology Letters, notes that titi alarm calls specify the type of predator, such as caracara (predatory bird) or oncilla (mammalian hunter). The calls also mention where the predator is located, such as in flight or stalking on the ground.

The calls are emitted in an orderly sequence, similar to how humans construct sentences. Lead author Cristiane Casar of the University of St. Andrews and her colleagues report it's "the first demonstration of a sequence-based alarm call system in a non-human animal that has the capacity to encode both location and type of predatory threat."

Dolphins name themselves with signature whistles that include other information -- such as sex, age, mating receptivity and health status. They broadcast the names when lonely for their buddies.

Researcher Stephanie King of the University of St. Andrews Sea Mammal Research Unit told Discovery News, "Animals produced copies when they were separated from a close associate and this supports our belief that dolphins copy another animal's signature whistle when they want to reunite with that specific individual."

Gorillas in the wild have their own detailed ways of communicating via calls, gestures, handclaps and more. In captivity, gorillas can be trained to interact with humans using sign language.

A gorilla named Koko, according to The Gorilla Foundation, has "a sign language vocabulary of over 1,000 words, which she uses in complex statements and questions. Most of these signs are standard American Sign Language (ASL), but some are natural gestures (intrinsic to gorillas), some are invented (untaught) and some ASL signs are slightly modified by Koko to form what we call Gorilla Sign Language (GSL)."

An Asian elephant male named Koshik can imitate human speech, according to Tecumseh Fitch of the University of Vienna and colleagues. Fitch told Discovery News that Koshik's vocabulary so far consists of five words: annyong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuo (lie down), and choah (good).

"Some of the words were commands that Koshik learned to perform, such as ‘lie down' and ‘sit down,' or were given as feedback, and we have every reason to believe he understands the meaning of these words," Fitch said.

Chimpanzee communication includes a mixture of passionate gestures, vocalizations and even sign language, which are all used to get their points across with each other. The gestures frequently happen in sequence so, similar to titi monkey alarm calls, come to mirror human sentence structures.

"There is tremendous overlap in human and chimpanzee gestures," Mary Lee Abshire Jensvold, associate director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, told Discovery News. "Many gestures that you see in chimpanzee play, such as slaps, tickles, pokes, blocks and kicks, are ones that you would see in human play. Imagine play wrestling between two humans, and you've imagined a scene with two chimpanzees playing."

Parrots are not just mindless mimics. Owners can teach them human language, with the parrots understanding the meaning of specific words, suggests Jonathan Balcombe, a senior research scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Balcombe told Discovery News that language-trained parrots have communicated food favorites, as well as what tastes bad, to their owners.

Orangutans act out incredibly detailed scenarios with their bodies. "Of course what orangutans do isn't up to Marcel Marceau," says Anne Russon, a Glendon College professor of psychology. "But they can certainly fake their own bodily signals, the essence of pantomime, and that opens up a much richer world of communication than we have believed possible."

Researchers have yet to fully decipher whale calls and songs, but this communication appears to be infused with detail. It's known that whales have separate vocalizations for mating, feeding and other activities. Body language is also important.

Luke Rendell, a lecturer in the School of Biology at the University of St. Andrews, and colleagues studied humpback whales off the coast of New England. "Our study really shows how vital cultural transmission is in humpback populations -- not only do they learn their famous songs from each other, they also learn feeding techniques that allow them to buffer the effects of changing ecology," Rendell told Discovery News.

Kimberley Pollard, a researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, and colleague Daniel Blumstein examined prairie dogs and other rodent species. The researchers found that prairie dogs all have unique voices.

"Differences in rodent voices are much like differences in human voices," explained Pollard. "Some animals' voices are high-pitched, others are low. Some voices are clear, others are more scratchy. Individual animals also have different timbre and use different patterns of emphasis. Each call has an animal's unique vocal stamp on it."

Bonobos often yell out what they think of their food, with the exclamations sounding similar to those of human sounds, such as "Yum!" and "Ewww." Klaus Zuberbühler, a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews, and colleague Zanna Clay found this out after testing bonobos on various foods. Figs and raisins got a lot of "Yum!" comments from the bonobos. Bell peppers received "Ewwws."

The scientists now think there might be a basic, universal primate call structure. Talking to the animals a la Dr. Doolittle might therefore be part of our genetic makeup.