Despite years of research, animal conversations are not clearly understood. Many of us suspect on an intuitive level that animals converse the way humans do but proof has been illusive. New research released today adds weight to this belief with researchers from the Universities of York and Sheffield in the UK, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherland studying animal conversations.

When humans speak, we ‘take turns’, waiting for the other person to finish before we jump in with our two cents worth. This characteristic, researchers found, is actually very widespread in animal conversations. Humans have a gap of about 200 milliseconds before taking their ‘turn’ in conversation. Researchers found songbirds have as little at 50 milliseconds while sperm whales could be as long as two seconds.

One of the authors, Dr Kobin Kendrick, from the University of York’s Department of Language and Linguistic Science, said: “The ultimate goal of the framework is to facilitate large-scale, systematic cross-species comparisons.

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

Dr Sonja Vernes, from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, added: “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.”

In the study, black-capped chickadees and European starlings practised ‘overlap avoidance’ during turn-taking communication. Remarkably, they wrote in the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, “If overlap occurs, individuals became silent or flew away, suggesting that overlapping may be treated, in this species, as a violation of socially accepted rules of turn-taking.”

 

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