Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Look out!"

“Leopard behind you!” Does that sound like a common warning among humans? Of course not. But in her (NYTimes) blog, Olivia Judson discusses the kinds of alarm calls (non-human) animals use to alert one another to danger.

And some of those warning sounds can be surprisingly predator-specific. For instance, Judson says, vervet monkeys make different sounds to warn of snake or eagle; at the first sound, the monkeys look to the ground, while at the other, they look up. At “leopard,” they head for the trees.

Other animals do much the same, distinguishing among predators with the sounds they make. She details the alarms issued by Gunnison’s prairie dogs, meerkats and black-capped chickadees – some so subtle as to differentiate between what’s coming and how close it is, and how dangerous a resting predator is.

Possibly more surprising, Judson reports that “animals of one species often respond to the alarms of another.” That can include choosing to ignore an alert if it’s a threat only for the caller, but not the “overhearing” animal. And of course, predators can hear the warning calls too, and may decide since their cover’s blown, they’ll quit for now.

Whether animals do all this because of innate intelligence, personal experience or watching what happens to others is not yet known. One theory is that positive reinforcement – when young animals sound the right alert, adults join in – plays a part.

All of which may prompt us to think about how we signal danger to other people; whether our words are as specific as some animal warning sounds; whether those beyond our intended audience listen and act too – and how we learned do any of this in the first place.

(All this talk of animal warnings recalls Ogden Nash's famous alert; it's irresistible here: . . . “if called by a panther/don’t anther.”)

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