Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Animals Talk

One is forced to wonder if animals communicate with language. It is obvious that they have vocalizations and bodily communication. The question remains, Do they have language? Some apes learn to sign. Horses can be whispered to. Cats read minds (or at least, like horses, subtle unconscious bodily signals). Birds mimic (minah, parrots, parakeets). Dogs vary their growls, grunts, yawns, bleats, and barks to win the hearts of their hosts.

In Buddhist parables (like the one below), they actively engage in deep, intellectual speculations. Now science is catching up to the subtleties of what they've been saying.

Wading birds, including the Great Egret, left, Wood Ibis, second from left, and the Snowy Egret, center, gather at a pond in Gainesville, Fla. 8/6/08. They might appear to be old friends passing the time but actually are taking advantage of low water to have quick access to their food source (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin).

Science finds: Animal Chatter More Varied than Thought
LiveScience.com (8/26/08)

Animals know how to speak up, pipe down, cut to the chase, or spin a long yarn in order to stand out amidst the din when it comes to communicating with peers, a new set of studies suggests.

A special August issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, presents a host of studies that investigate the ways that animals adapt their calls, chirps, barks and whistles to their social situation.

The special issue reports on findings from the natural world such as:
  • Male gray treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) give out longer but fewer calls in reaction to the calls of other males. In other words, when these frogs are chorusing full blast, a male seeking female attention will change the rhythm of his call to break out of the chorus.
  • Using an array of microphones to identify individual callers among wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates), scientists found that although dolphins whistle more in social situations, individuals decrease their vocal output in large groups, when their whistles are more likely to be drowned out.
  • Nestling tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) adjust their call output to parents when there's more noisy competition from the brood.
  • Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) in larger social groups use calls with greater information than do individuals in smaller groups, and female-male interactions in opposite-sex chickadee pairs reflect the rate of male production of that distinctive chick-a-dee call.
  • Two different species of North American katydids synchronize calls within species, using somewhat different methods. Whereas the synchrony of N. spiza is a byproduct of signal competition between evenly matched males, that of N. nebrascensis seems to be an adaptation that allows cooperating males to make sure females can pick up critical features of their calls. These different routes to synchrony suggest different evolutionary paths that have led to the way that male katydids acoustically advertise their availability.
"Pooling data on vocal imitation, vocal convergence and compensation for noise suggests a wider [cross-species] distribution of vocal production learning among mammals than has been generally appreciated," Peter Tyack, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution involved in one of the studies.

The results could mean that mammals have more of the neural underpinnings for learning to vocalize than has been previously thought.

"Animal communication has been a major emphasis in animal behavior and comparative psychology for many decades," said Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who edits the journal. "However, in recent years, we have gone beyond the straightforward analysis of dyadic interactions between two individuals. We now consider the role of eavesdropping, deception and noisy environments in shaping signals and investigate how animals deploy them in various contexts."


Four Friends

Robert Beer (The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols)

The Four Friends or Harmonious Brothers (Tibetan, mthun-po spun bzhi)

The auspicious Tibetan motif of "the four friends" consists of an elephant, monkey, hare, and partridge forming an acrobatic pyramid beneath a tree, and has its origin in the Tittira Jataka legend of one of the Buddha's previous lives (jatakas). In the Tittira fable, however, only three animals are mentioned, the elephant, monkey, and partridge. This moral tale [much like Aesop's Fables, which is no coincidence as documented by Rhys Davids in Buddhist Birth-Stories (1998, Shristi Publishers)] illustrates that age must be respected above learning, greatness, or noble birth.


The parable relates how Shariputra, one of the Buddha's eldest disciples, was once unable to find lodging in the town of Vaisali, as the younger disciples had hurried ahead to selfishly secure all available accomodation for themselves. Early the next morning the Buddha learned that Shariputra had passed the night alone beneath a tree. In response to the self-cherishing attitude that prevailed amonst the younger Sangha, the Buddha related the Tittira Jataka parable of the "honoring of age."

Birth Story

"Once, beneath a great banyan tree in the Himalayan foothills, there lived three friends, a partridge, a monkey, and an elephant. Their mutual respect had diminished, and in order to determine who was the most senior they began to discuss the age of the banyan tree beneath which they dwelt. The elephant spoke first, telling of how when he was a baby the banyan tree was only a small bush [tickling his belly as he passed over it]. The monkey then related how in his infancy the tree was merely a sapling. Then the partridge spoke, telling of how he had once swallowed the original seed, and how this mighty tree had actually sprouted from his droppings. The partridge was then honored as the eldest, senior in rank to the monkey and the elephant. Once again harmony prevailed in the animal kingdom."

The Buddha decreed that henceforth age would confer priority amongst the Sangha. He revealed that in this previous existence his disciple was Maudgalyayana and been the elephant, Shariputra the Elder had been the monkey, whilst Buddha himself had been the partridge. The hare was later included in this legend, and identified with the Buddha's eldest disciple, Ananda. The hare was second in seniority, as he had first seen the tree when it was a germinating sprout.


These four herbivorous animals represent the four terrestrial habitats of sky (partridge), tree (monkey), ground (elephant), and underground (hare). Sometimes the bird is identified as a grouse, and the banyan tree is usually illustrated as a fruit tree. A variation of the story has them standing on each other's backs in order to reach the fruit, with the implied moral of cooperation. Occasionally the four animals are illustrated on both sides of the tree; on one side separated into their respective habitats, and on the other side united in harmonious cooperation. Certain Indian trees are believed to sprout only after their seeds have passed through the intestines of birds, and this similarly symbolizes the motif of co-dependence or cooperation [i.e., interdependence]. The harmonious motif of the four friends is often painted upon secular or monastic walls, doors, furniture, and household chinaware.

European history

The German town of Bremen adapted this motif, drawn from the Tittira Jataka legend of animal cooperation, as a heraldic device for the city's coat of arms. A similar motif appears in teh "Musicians of Bremen" fairytale composed by the brothers Grimm [also not by coincidence, but rather Buddhist parables had passed into legend which reached Greece and Europe as fairytale], but here the four animals are an ass, a dog, a cat, and a cockerel.

No comments: