september, 2016

20sep1:00 pm2:00 pmComplex vocal sequences in animals: information, intelligence, or irrelevant? Dr Arik Kershenbaum


Event Details



Many mammal and bird species produce long, complex sequences of vocalisations, made up of a combination of multiple discrete sound types. Much has been written about the complexity of these sequences and what they might tell us about the evolution of human language. Recently, non-trivial statistical dependencies have been found in the vocalisations of many species, from humpback whales to Titi monkeys. Such statistical dependencies are often called “syntactic structure”. What is the relationship – if any – of animal syntax to the evolution of human language? Indeed, do these syntactic structure even have any relevance to animal communication? Authors have variously postulated that complex vocal sequences could encode individual information (i.e. act as honest index signals), encode more general environmental information (i.e. act as an intentional information channel), or perhaps be no more than arbitrary artefacts of the sound production mechanism. Answering these questions without being privy to the actual semantic content of the messages seems like an impossible task. However, I will present some statistical techniques that attempt to distinguish between complexity for its own sake, and complexity for the sake of communicative power. Furthermore, there may be models of sequence complexity that help to explain why human language appears to be unique, without the presence of any evolutionarily intermediate steps.

Arik Kershenbaum is a Herchel Smith Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, UK. He focuses on the evolution of acoustic communication systems in different animals, and particularly the role that communication plays in the evolution of cooperation.

If anyone would like to meet with Arik please contact Ellen Garland.

Arik Kershenbaum’s website


(Tuesday) 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm


Dyer's Brae Seminar Room

Dyers Brae, School of Biology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Greenside Place, Fife, KY16 9TH, UK


Ellen Garland & Christian, Dyers Brae, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9TH, UK