Different Dialects

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Science  18 May 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6083, pp. 778
DOI: 10.1126/science.336.6083.778-a

Acoustical analysis has revealed the presence of complex communication signals across a variety of animal species. Information may also be conveyed by the arrangement of sounds, known as syntax. Syntax is thought to be rare outside of humans and birds, but the ability to transmit complex information vocally is likely to be beneficial across social species. Male rock hyraxes, a type of social small mammal, make a complex call that consists of wails, chucks, snorts, squeaks, and tweets and conveys detailed information about the caller's identity. Kershenbaum et al. applied methods borrowed from information theory and genetics to show the existence of distinct syntactical dialects in male hyraxes across regions within Israel. Specifically, populations near to one another were more similar than those farther apart, whereas at larger distances, differences varied without regard to proximity. The breakdown of the relationship between dialect and distance at larger scales suggests that dispersal distance is a limiting factor in the transmission of dialect learning. These results demonstrate that syntactical structure and vocal learning may occur in a more diverse group of species than has been previously recognized and that sociality may be a driving force for its development.

Proc. R. Soc. London Ser. B 279, 10.1098/rspb.2012.0322 (2012).

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