Research uncovers how animals take turns to talk

A collaborative review between the University of York and the University of Sheffield, along with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology of Germany and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands has been studying the “turn-taking behaviour” that animals have when they communicate. It was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. By analysing hundreds of animal studies, the researchers behind this review have begun to try and understand the mystery that is how animals communicate.

Although scientists have been studying turn-taking behaviour for over 50 years, the research on it has not been collated in a way that makes thorough examinations of cross-species comparisons possible. The first turn-taking behaviour studies focused on the vocal interactions of birds – their turn-taking is called “duets”. However researchers who study monkeys discuss Antiphonal calls. Just this difference in vocabulary in how the turn-taking behaviour is studied is causing confusion and added complexity within research in this field, which is why this broad cross-species examination is so difficult to establish.

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics’ Dr Sonja Vernes commented “We came together because we all believe strongly that these fields can benefit from each other, and we hope that this paper drives more cross talk between human and animal turn-taking research in the future”.

What all turn-taking behaviour has been found to have in common – including we humans – is a system of timing. The length of that timing between turns changes depending on the species but remains noticeable within the review; whilst humans tend to have gaps of around 200 milliseconds in between turns of people talking in a conversation, the mighty sperm whales have a gap that reaches 2 seconds in between the clicking sounds they use to communicate. Some species of song bird have fewer than 50 milliseconds between birds producing their song.

Dr Kobin Kendrick of the University of York’s Department of Language of Linguistic Science has said that “The ultimate goal of the framework is to facilitate large-scale, systematic cross-species comparisons. Such a framework will allow researches to trace the evolutionary history of this remarkable turn-taking behaviour and address longstanding questions about the origins of human language”.