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Wild Talk

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 05:22 PM

Prairie dog Prairie dog (Larry1372/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

In today's podcast, we get a tantalizing taste of words in the wild, from the jungles to the prairie.

Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro tells us about Klaus Zuberbuhler's work in the Tai Forest of West Africa. When Klaus first came to the forest, he hit a wall of sound. But he slowly started making sense of that sonic chaos by scaring a particular monkey called the Diana Monkey. Turns out, the Diana Monkey is making more than just noise. Then we jump from the jungle to the prairie, where Con Slobodchikoff has discovered what he calls a grammar of color, shapes, and sizes embedded in prairie dog chirps. His discovery leaves Jad and Robert wondering whether we could ever understand the language of a different species. Back in the jungle, Klaus is wondering the same thing, and tells us about one day when the cacophony of monkey calls distilled into a life-saving warning.


Professor Con Slobodchikoff and Professor Klaus Zuberbuhler


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Comments [43]

Miclan Quorpencetta from Michigan

I was just thinking, what if the leopard knew the monkey word for leopard? That would explain why when he heard a bunch of recordings yelling "leopard!" he came running: to defend his territory. I mean it would be cool if we could prove cross species communication, right?

Mar. 08 2017 11:27 PM
dark asura from adkahsj

woooowwwwwwwwww so cool

hahahahahaaha jk hahahahahahhaha
u fell for it

Mar. 31 2016 04:46 PM
Erika from Florida, USA

Is there any possibility that the monkeys weren't announcing the presence of a leopard, but actually telling other monkeys that there was a predator on the ground (as opposed to in the air like the eagle)? That predator was the man. So not that Klaus became the 11th primate in the forest but actually a new form of predator/danger that needed to be "announced".

Oct. 03 2015 09:58 PM
Alan Tower

I am a sound researcher and develop experiences at the intersection of resonance and reverberation for people. This for me was a profound segment and especially at the end when Klaus had his experience of being part of and embedded in the whole situation.

Apr. 21 2015 08:13 PM
Trevor from Montreal

This topic needs an hour!

Mar. 04 2014 10:36 AM
Christopher Allman from chicago

This makes you wonder if, like so many other things that were once thought to be a unique human invention, language is actually something that gradually evolved through countless different species.
We love to try and pinpoint one thing that separates humans from animals, when in reality it seems there are a large number of things that distinguish us, but they are different in degree, rather than in kind.

Sep. 14 2012 10:32 AM

I think the monkeys were making the alert call for leopard to scare the man and to get back at him for blaring predator animal noises at them!

Apr. 11 2012 01:30 AM
chris russell from troy, ny

Prarie Dogs aren't "rodent-like animals"; they are rodents!

Oct. 14 2011 01:17 AM

Disagree with those that think that the monkeys were calling "danger on the ground" when the researcher was passing. If so, why didn't they call it when he was walking through the forest at any other time?

Aug. 04 2011 02:32 PM
robby.1911 from ft. myers, fla

as far as monkey ruckus and bird whacky, they help guide you as long as you look out for the BIG ASS SNAKE that they are all talking about.

Apr. 12 2011 07:54 PM
cristina from melbourne

How could that professor *know* that the animals were referring to yellow/blue/big/small? I am a bit disappointed because you guys normally are very quick at picking up such things. (love your podcasts anyway!!)

Mar. 11 2011 08:12 AM
TalkyMeat from Amsterdam, Netherlands

Just listened to this today, and have been wondering about the social chatter between prairie dogs. Have concluded that they are FourSquare checkins.

Mar. 10 2011 04:51 AM
Brandon from Washington D.C.

While that podcast was interesting, it was relatively shallow. The realm of animal communication supercedes variegated alarm calls. Any natural ecosystem is packed with thousands of different calls and signals that are means of communication. For example, if you go to Central Park during the Spring and you will hear dozens of species of birds making mating calls, territorial calls, locational calls, warning calls etc. Notice that if you walk into a forest - everything becomes completely silent at worst or filled with sharp bird calls at best. Bird language is only one other form of animal communication but it does not only function within the species of birds in the area. Local prey (deer, rabbits, groundhog etc.) and predators (foxes and coyotes) use the language of the birds to navigate safely through their environments. Animal language is essential to survival in any natural ecosystem and this podcast would be more valuable in my opinion if it addressed the timelessness and evolutionary aspects of animal language.

Feb. 26 2011 09:15 PM

Jan. 14 2011 10:22 PM

BRILLIANT! :) Thanks guys! That was seriously awesome!

Dec. 25 2010 04:03 AM

brilliant show here, some of it seems like you talking out your arses, but this segment was highly entertaining!
good for you radiolabsters

Dec. 11 2010 06:10 PM
Hans-Christoph Steiner from NYC

I greatly enjoyed this show. I'd love to see a follow up on the people of places like the Tai Forest and their understanding of the language of the animals. I am guessing that cultures that live among animals like the monkeys of the Tai Forest understand the language since it would help them out so much.

Dec. 05 2010 08:21 PM

Would you like some whine with those “chee”s?

Nov. 30 2010 02:54 AM

I thought that it was fascinating that animals can communicate using specific diolouge and that humans can understand and interact with them through a set language

Nov. 27 2010 01:38 PM

It surprised me that Jad and Rob couldn't hear the difference between the prairie dogs' chirps, since they sounded different to me. Of course, it helped that the three calls were played side by side. If I were really in the wild, the sounds would be more diverse and I probably wouldn't have noticed any difference.

Still, this makes me think that distinguishing between animal calls is easier than we thought. You only need somebody who's good at hearing differences in sounds, like a musician, or even a young child who's just learning to speak.

Nov. 24 2010 11:29 PM
Patrick from Venice Beach!

One of my new favorite episodes! The story of the scientist being tracked by the jungle cat gave me goose bumps. Thanks for another fantastic show!

Nov. 24 2010 12:12 AM
Linda from somerville, ma

Next time you are in Boston, go to the Museum of Science & to the exhibit in the basement called A Bird's World. Here's what you can learn: "Birds naturally detect predators. Their sounds and movements indicate hidden predators lurking around them all the time. Here, you can learn how to interpret the bird language you hear being chirped just outside your window at home." This isn't exactly a new exhibit. However, anyone interested in having the experience of trying to understand the sounds of animals in the woods would probably enjoy a visit to this exhibit.

Nov. 22 2010 09:36 PM

I knew it, I KNEW IT!

Dr. Doolittle was right after all.

For all those of you who are acting all "Ho hum, big deal, I knew it all along," well, fyi, scientists (and just about everyone else) have been denying that animals can communicate and have feelings, memories & thoughts as long as I can remember - which is a heck of a long time - so personally, I am totally thrilled to realize some of them (scientists) have come so far. And this is a step in educating the general public. Bravo! We've got so much to learn...

Nov. 15 2010 08:02 PM

Take the case of Alex the Parrot. It is clear that some animals can acquire language skills and even coin new words and phrases. I suppose it wouldn't be too outrageous to claim that they have a similar system in use.

Nov. 15 2010 07:44 AM

A very interesting episode. But I'm curious as to why anyone would be surprised that animals have working communications/vocabulary and that different species would understand each others calls. It seems like casual observation and a little bit of thinking would make it obvious that animals have to communicate about their world and that all the different species around them would be well aware of warning calls from anyother group.

Nov. 12 2010 02:10 PM
Bill Smith from Austin, Texas

What a fascinating report! Thank you for sharing it with us.

Nov. 11 2010 03:14 PM
Denise from Chicagoland

I have three prairie dogs and they are fascinating. Their language - unbelievable. Really.

Nov. 10 2010 08:28 PM
Don from Burlington VT

When the researcher was listiening to the monkeys track the leopard following him, it totally reminded me of the adventrues of Jim Corbett hunting leopeards in India. Extremely cool book: "Man-Eating Leopard of Rudrapranag" by Jim Corbett

Nov. 05 2010 02:17 PM

When I was listening to that episode, my cat started freaking out when they played the monkey alert noise. Maybe he can understand them too!

Nov. 04 2010 09:22 PM
Dunbar from Chicago

This podcast blew my mind this morning. It was like having one of my biggest childhood fantasy affirmed. I grew up in tennessee and spent a ton of time visiting my grand parents alone on thier farm. I was just a kid alone with his imagination and some horses, pigs and cows (chickens are jerks so I avoided them). I am on the train this morning and I almost cried. Animals can talk . . . kinda . . . or at least they might. Keep up the good work guys. You continue to make me look at our world with wonder & awe.

Nov. 04 2010 01:24 PM
Nathan Cross from arlington, va

This podcast episode absolutely blew me away. Very very cool!

Nov. 03 2010 08:50 PM

An interesting and related article has been published on the BBC's website:

Nov. 03 2010 09:10 AM
sarah from Idaho

This is the best podcast I have ever heard, period. Thank you so much!!!

Nov. 03 2010 12:15 AM

Well, you've done it again! I always download this show thinking I'll get to hear some nice little scientific factoids, and I'm always forced to re-evaluate the way I look at the world and be a little bit more thoughtful of the beings that I share the planet with. Thanks a lot guys! Way to be the nerdy TAL! x(

Oct. 30 2010 05:47 PM
Michelle from London, UK

For a while now I've wondered if animals' languages are universal. For instance, if you move to another region or country with your cat, will it understand meows of cats native to that area? I've tried Googling this question before to no avail.

Oct. 26 2010 04:55 AM
Thomas Dayton

This was an amazing clip! I would love to hear a follow up with a speaker named Jon Young, he has spent most of his life deciphering the language of birds (look up advanced bird language CD's). I would also agree with Tatiana that the people of the Tai forest must have known this. There are even older books such as "Jungle Lore" by Jim Corbett who talk about this phenomenon. I am glad the scientist are catching up!

Oct. 24 2010 02:11 PM
Tatiana from Oregon

Interesting and compelling, as always. I was right there with the scientist tuning in with the wild and becoming a primate. But it left me feeling really sad, because you guys framed it as though it was a revolutionary leap to make - to tune in to the sounds and their meanings. I would bet my left foot that the people native to the Tai forest already knew what that scientist learned, and that they'd shrug and rattle off eleven or a hundred other obvious-to-them cues from the jungle that let them know what's happening. It's just common sense that if you live in an environment you learn its languages.

Oct. 23 2010 12:05 AM

I agree with Andrew Tyra.

Also, if folks are more interested in exploring what Henry Beston called "other nations" please read the book When Elephants Weep. it is an excellent look at animals and their similarities to us.

also, there is a great TED talk out on bonobo communication... google it.

this was a great piece, thanks radiolab!

Oct. 22 2010 03:36 AM
Andrew Tyra from MIlwaukee, WI

I agree that it's possible that something got lost in translation or the message was misinterpreted but it seems that Zuberbuhler's experience was such that he would be able to differentiate those distinct types of calls. It seems likely that the researchers were accustomed to hearing the call that meant 'human' as they heard it daily. The call for 'leopard' however, was "rare" and "striking." If the calls were more general ("danger on the ground!"), then it would seem that there would be little distinction between the various types of calls.

Oct. 21 2010 10:04 PM
Dave from Greer, SC

Matt's comment echoes exactly what occurred to me while listening to that segment. I think the monkeys were associating him with the sound of the leopard, and therefore warning each other (and everyone else) that he was nearby. It just sounded to him like they were calling "LEOPARD!"

Oct. 21 2010 09:05 PM

Communication among animals isn't "language"--at least not necessarily. Language requires discrete combinatoriality among the elements that compose an utterance. Simply having an alarm call that other conspecifics interpret *as if* it's a word does not make it a word. Anyone claiming they've found "animal language" needs to read this article first: Kako, E. (1999). "Elements of syntax in the systems of three language-trained animals". Animal Learning & Behavior 27: 1–14.

Oct. 21 2010 12:25 PM
Matt from London, UK

Who's to say that the chimp call means "leopard" specifically? It could just as well mean "danger on the ground". I think that researcher's experience makes a good story, but odds are HE was the danger to which the chimps were alerting eachother.

Oct. 21 2010 07:57 AM
Fom Qua


Oct. 20 2010 02:23 AM

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