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Beastly Babble

Part 1: Warm-up fun
Pull up a word processor or Notepad. Now check the clock on your monitor. Give yourself just three minutes to list as many animal sounds as you can (you know: bark, meow, squeak…that kind of stuff).

What are you waiting for? Go!

When you are done, check your answers with our list.

How many animal vocalizations could you come up with? [Don't feel badly if you didn't come up with as many as we did. We used more than three minutes to create that list!]

Now that you are thinking about different sounds animals make, get ready to learn more.

Part 2: C'mon, there's exploring to do!
Here are some basic rules about animal communication:

  • The more an animal needs other members of its species to survive, the more complicated its communication will be.
  • Just because animals don't speak like humans do (in words), it doesn't mean they don't communicate.
  • For many species, much of their communication is non-verbal. For example, apes are very intelligent, but pass along many messages to one another gesturing with their hands, arms and heads.
  • Most animals do make at least some sounds, but the structures they use aren't necessarily the same as humans have.
  • Some animals - a good example is the horse - make few voiced noises, but are extremely sensitive to human voices.
  • Creatures of one species sometimes understand the "talk" of a different species. The chickadee is an excellent example. If the chickadee makes an alarm call, other forest creatures become silent. It is as though the forest animals are waiting to see what the danger might be. However, scientists have observed that when the chickadee makes another of its calls, the other animals do not react.
  • Experts know that humans learn language as young children. If a person was raised without anyone speaking to him or her (and didn't hear a TV or radio), that person would not know language. However, some animals that have been raised away from their own species still seem to communicate by natural instinct. In other words, some animals seem to be born with communication skills.

Remember from the Fantastic Vocal Journey how humans produce voice? Let's compare that to the way dogs, birds, and dolphins "talk."

Dogs produce many different sounds. Adult dogs can make low growling sounds, and puppies usually produce high-pitched yips. Big dogs make low-pitched sounds mostly because of simple physics. Big things usually make low sounds, and little things make high-pitched noises. [Compare the music made by a string bass to that of the little, tiny piccolo. This is the same idea.]

Dogs have larynxes (that look similar to humans), lungs that breathe in and exhale air, and a vocal tract (throat, mouth, nose). You know from studying the human voice, that these things are needed for vocalization. [Think about how differently the vocal tract is shaped in a dog as compared to a human, though. Except for a few snub-nosed canines like bulldogs or pugs, most dogs have a long snout and a mouth that can open widely.]

Listen to an audio sample of dogs from Georgetown University's website. Do you hear both high and low pitches? Would you guess this recording was made with different sizes of dogs? [this website will open in a new browser windw, close that window to return to this one.]

Even though dogs have similar vocal structures as compared to humans, dogs do not speak as we do. People have tried to teach their dogs to speak with hours and hours of repeating words and rewarding the dogs when they made human-like sounds. But dogs are not natural speakers, and one of the best in history (a Doberman) could produce only 7 somewhat-understandable words.

So, why don't dogs talk? There may be several reasons, but the most important is that dogs lack the brainpower to speak. Talking is complicated! The brain must coordinate nerves, muscles, airflow, plus all the brain drain of deciding what to say. A dog's brain probably just isn't developed well enough to mastermind the job of speaking.

Another consideration is that dogs don't really need to speak. Look how well dogs communicate with each other and humans by sniffing, using their expressive faces, or acting out their needs (for example, running to the door to be let outside).

Final Fun Fact: There is general agreement among scientists that domesticated dogs (yes, those that whimper, growl, bark, yip, bark and woof) descended from wolves. Yet, wolves usualy make very few sounds!

Other than the human, a bird's song is the most beautiful and complicated vocalization in nature. However, birds produce their songs quite unlike that of humans.

Birds do not have a larynx, but make songs with an organ called the syrinx. The syrinx is located at the bottom of the trachea (the tube just above the lungs). It is made up of chambers whose "walls" (membranes) vibrate when air passes them. Birds use special muscles to change the shapes of the membranes, which changes the sounds of their songs.

It is interesting to note that birds with some of the most beautiful songs - such as mockingbirds - have more muscles to control the membranes of the syrinx. Some birds can vibrate the left and right sides of the syrinx independently, so their songs are harmonious duets produced by a single bird!

But do birds talk? Many birds, such as the parrots and myna birds, can be taught to mimic human words extremely well. If you stood - with eyes closed - in a room with another human being and a parrot, you might find it hard to tell which "hello" belonged to the person and which to the parrot!

It is important to understand, though, that these mimicking birds do NOT understand what they are saying. They merely repeat sounds that have been taught to them. You could say that talking to a parrot is pretty much like talking to a tape player.

Final Fun Fact: Some birds, such as the mockingbird, cannot mimic the human voice, but imitate other birds very well. The starling can not only imitate other birds, but also the meow of a cat!


chart of human hearing vs. dolphin soundsCompared to dogs or birds, dolphins are extremely intelligent creatures. Their brains are large and complex, so that one might suspect dolphins would be good communicators and might be able to learn language. Sailors and others who spend much time on the sea have long reported that dolphins squeak, groan and hiss.

Until recently, however, scientists didn't fully understand ALL sounds dolphins make. Part of the difficulty is that - unlike birds and dogs - humans don't live in the same environment as dolphins (the sea). The other difficulty, though, is that the human ear can't hear all of the sounds a dolphin makes. Look at the chart (right). From the bottom of the ear to the top of the yellow area shows sounds the human ear can hear. Now, look at the sounds a dolphin makes (from the bottom of the dolphin to the top of the blue area). The numbers are measured in Hertz. Some of the dolphin noises have a higher pitch (between about 18,000 and 23,000 Hertz) than our ears can handle.

Dolphins make their high-pitched sounds to keep them moving safely. As they swim, they make these noises from air sacs in their heads. If these sounds bounce off anything - say a large rock - the dolphins know to swim around it. Dolphins use other sounds for other reasons. For example, they seem to use a clicking sound to help keep the group together. But do dolphins make voiced sounds like a human, dog or bird? In some ways, the process is similar. Dolphins release inhaled air, and using their excellent muscle control, open and shut the blowhole (located at the top of the head) to make various sounds. Unlike humans and dogs, however, dolphins do not have vocal cords.

Final Fun Fact: In a very interesting experiment, Dr. KS Norris created a communications link of underwater microphones and receivers between dolphins near Hawaii with those near Florida. He found that dolphins speak the same "language" whether they were born in the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean!

Now that we've learned how humans, dogs, birds and dolphins "talk", let's list some of the reasons why animals don't speak as humans do:
  1. Animals' brains are not as complex as those of humans.
  2. Some species do not have vocal cords.
  3. Many species do not have delicate control of the lips, teeth, jaw and tongue required to shape words.
  4. The vocal tracts (the area between the sound-producing organ and the mouth) of animals may differ greatly in shape and size as compared to humans, so it is not surprising that the vocalizations sound different.

Part 3: Great Stuff on the Web to see (and hear)!
[These links will open in a new browser window, please close that window when done to return to this window.]

Sounds of whales The Acoustical Society of America's website
Sounds of many animals Georgetown University's website
Sounds of bugs and birds Slovenia Museum of Natural History's website
Sounds of birds Sunsite Japan
Sounds of bats University of Bristol
Sounds of many animals Wild Sanctuary

Part 4: If you want to know more

Here are some good books to build on what you've just learned:

  • Talking with the Animals by Daniel Cohen (1971). Published by Dodd, Mead & Company
  • Animal Languages by Fernard Mery (1971). Published by Saxon House
  • Animal Talk by Eugene Morton and Jake Page (1992). Published by Random House
  • Eloquent Animals by Flora Davis (1978). Published by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc.
Part 5: Keep your knowledge Alive!

You have covered a lot of information about how animals make sounds. Did you forget anything? Take a true or false quiz to test your 'animal smarts'

Back to Information for Young Explorers


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