About the Book by Nicolas Mathevon Titled “The Voices of Nature: How and Why Animals Communicate”

From a Wall Street Journal review by David P. Barash headlined “”The Voices of Nature’ Review: Calls of the Wild”:

From King Solomon’s ring to Dr. Doolittle, humans have been fascinated with the prospect of talking to the animals, or, failing that, eavesdropping as they talk to one another. There may be more children’s picture books with talking critters than picture books with conversing people. “The Voices of Nature: How and Why Animals Communicate” isn’t for children, but it is a multifaceted delight for animal-lovers and armchair adventurers.

Nicolas Mathevon, a professor at the University of Saint-Etienne in France, is one of the world’s most prolific researchers in bioacoustics. If you want to know what African striped mice say to one another when they’re alone together, his book is the book for you.

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” because our frames of reference would be so different. Can we truly understand what animals are saying, chirping, singing, calling, barking, growling, warbling, whistling? Maybe not precisely, but as Mr. Mathevon shows, it’s scientifically possible to try. Wittgenstein might be surprised at how much we can in fact discern: There are evident meaning of variations in frequency, intensity, pattern, and the like.

The author relies on simple, easy-to-grasp field experiments to show, for example, whether members of a given species recognize one another as individuals and whether complex semantic information is encoded in animal language. A now-famous example of the latter comes from African vervet monkeys, which produce three alarm calls: “a first (‘kof’) for leopard-like land predators; a second (‘uaho’) for aerial predators like the martial eagle, and a third ‘(‘cla-clack . . . cla-clack’) for snakes.” Responses are different in each case: “They climb a tree when they hear the leopard call. When it is an eagle call, they look to the sky and hide under the nearest bush. And in response to the snake call, the adults stand up on their hind legs and scan the ground, grouping together to harry the trespasser.”

Other chapters present fascinating puzzles, such as how parents and offspring identify one another, especially when breeding in dense seabird or bat colonies of thousands, even millions of pairs. Since such breeding colonies are remarkably noisy, success requires increasing the signal-to-noise ratio. Parent-offspring communication in general receives a great deal of attention in “The Voices of Nature,” which includes a fascinating account of how birds that are regularly victimized by nest parasites such as cuckoos teach their legitimate offspring a password by employing an “incubation call” while the chicks are still inside their eggs. After hatching: no password? No food.

Readers learn about the “dear enemy effect,” whereby animals that “own” a territory may act blasé about vocalizations from their neighbors, with whom they have a stable relationship, but are greatly agitated by a new vocal calling card, indicating an intruder. Yet in animal communication, as in human speech, mix-ups often happen: A hyena who identifies a colleague by its giggle doesn’t necessarily recognize the same individual by its whoop.

Male superb lyrebirds regularly practice intentional miscommunication—some would say deception—ventriloquizing to give the impression that a dangerous predator is nearby. This includes adjusting vocalizations to make it seem that many different birds are harassing the nonexistent predator, superimposing calls of several species and even adding fake sounds of flapping wings. This vocal tour-de-force is emitted only while mating, during which the male perches on the female and waves his wings in front of her, blocking her view and reinforcing the illusion that moving away would be dangerous.

How do humpback whales sing their famous songs without pushing air through their throats or blowholes? I won’t tell you, but Mr. Mathevon does. His carefully documented research also silences anyone who questions whether animals recognize one another as individuals. Such vocal signatures shouldn’t be surprising given that we take for granted our own ability to identify people, or pets, by their voices.

The author’s enthusiasm for his subject is evident and contagious, but can sometimes be overdone. I’ve never read a book of expository science laden with exclamation marks. “Most insects cannot hear anything!” “Koalas have a second vocal organ!” Ironically, for a book that masterfully guides the reader through tactics of communication, many of its paragraphs are intimidatingly long, often occupying a whole page. But “The Voices of Nature” offers more than enough in recompense for these stylistic tics—including an up-close seat to Mr. Mathevon’s intrepid adventures in the field.

The field experiments the author recounts take place among free-living animals all over the world, Arctic to Antarctic, underwater to rainforest canopies. He wondered whether female crocodiles can hear their unhatched but vocal young while the eggs are buried under sand. So he recorded their sounds, buried a speaker, did a playback and found out. (Spoiler: They do.) He similarly showed that baby black caimans (South American relatives of alligators) have contact calls that keep the brood together as well as distress calls that “enrage” the mother. Given that adult black caimans can be up to 20 feet long and weigh 1,000 pounds—and are known to eat jaguars, anacondas and humans—it takes a lot of scientific commitment to enrage one in the wild.

David P. Barash is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. His latest book is “Oops! The Worst Blunders of All Time, from Pandora’s Box to Putin’s War.”

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