My name is Amanda Stansbury, and I am a researcher at the University of St Andrew’s Sea Mammal Research Unit. I study how animals perceive the world, such as how they use sound to send and receive information. Not only are animals able to use sounds, they are also able to learn new information from them. In order to better understand the seal’s communication abilities, I tested if a seal could learn to categorise sounds. This is especially interesting to compare the seal’s communication to other complex communication systems, like human language.

 

We live in a world full of information, where our senses provide us with lots of information about what is happening around us. To enable us to sort through large loads of sensory feedback, our minds use different strategies to organize and consolidate to allow us to quickly use new information. One way we do this is through classification and generalisation. Classification allows us to classify the things we perceive into a smaller number of categories (as dressers that help us organise a messy room), reducing the amount of information we have to process. Generalisation allows us to take new information and put it into these categories (as every pair of socks goes into the sock drawer regardless their colour or size). By using these strategies, we can quickly understand what is happening in the world around us; and organise the flood of information in our surroundings into a way that we can process.

Many animals also classify the things they perceive into categories. This also happens in vocal communication systems. For example, some species produce a specific predator alarm call to warn other animals of a specific threat. When an animal makes that specific alarm call, other animals will recognize it despite differences that occur. When we make a sound, it is never exactly the same. It may be louder or quieter, longer or shorter, or have different inflections and pitch. By using classification and generalization, we can recognize the sounds are still the same despite these differences.

I tested grey seals to see if they could classify the sounds they make into the same categories that humans perceive. Grey seals make lots of different sounds, including growls and moans. Growls are broadband noises, which sound kind of like a cat hissing. Moans are tonal noises, which sound kind of like a dog howling. Human listeners can easily classify the sounds grey seals make into these categories. I tested if a grey seal named “Zola” could do the same.

Zola was played recordings of her own growls and moans, as well as those from other seals she had never met. To check if she could classify the sounds, she had to respond with a matching call type. This meant that when I played her a growl, she was correct if she growled back. If I played her a moan, she was correct if she moaned back. Throughout testing, Zola was played 140 different sounds, recorded from three different seals, which she had not heard before. She responded correctly 90% of the time, showing that she could classify new calls into the right category.

Zola’s ability to classify calls by type is really interesting because it means that seals could potentially use this information for communication. Different call types could provide seals with different information. It also shows that seals have control over when they produce these call types, and use them in specific contexts. However, there is still a lot we don’t know. Even though seals are capable of categorization, they may not use the ability in their natural communication. And although Zola could classify calls as either growls or moans, maybe seals use a different classification system than humans do. Maybe the seals perceive multiple little categories of growls, where we only perceive one big category.

By studying animal cognition and communication abilities, we learn about our own abilities. Seals are capable of categorization and generalization of sounds, which are some of the basic skills needed to develop complex communication systems, like human language. While seals do not have communication comparable to language, they have some of the building blocks. By understanding the abilities of other animals, we gain a better understanding of ourselves.

If you want to find out more, here is the paper!

 

Contact the researcher

Amanda Stansbury, PhD

as252@st-andrews.ac.uk

 

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Contact the illustrator

Alina Loth, PhD candidate

al75@st-andrews.ac.uk