Animals Know When It's Their Turn to Talk (Or Listen)

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Some animals cherish the silent pauses in conversations more than others. Olaf Holland/Shutterstock

Ever wonder if the birds in the backyard are chirping about you? Or if all the squirrels in the park are discussing your business?

Well, you may be paranoid. But you may also be onto something.

Animals do have conversations. They billow and bugle and bark at each other all the time, likely none of it having anything to do with you. But more fascinating, as a group of international academics recently discovered, is the fact that most animals employ the same turn-based communication we do.

In other words, when one squirrel squeaks, the other listens. Rinse. Repeat. Communicate.

It’s a cycle that you might have thought unique to humans — as we often laud ourselves as the purveyors of civilized society. But the large-scale review of available research conducted by academics from the United Kingdom and Germany suggests otherwise.

In fact, the researchers noted human-like conversation patterns are widespread in the animal kingdom. An elephant knows when to turn off the trumpet — and turn on the ears. Even a firefly waits its turn to flash.

Conversation, the study authors noted, is a "fundamentally cooperative enterprise."

Chimpanzees sitting in a circle.
Chimpanzees talk things over in a committee. And it's all very civilized. Patrick Rolands/Shutterstock

Looking for patterns

It wouldn’t be the first time someone had this notion. Research into animal conversation dates back decades. Songbirds, for instance, are well known for their "duets," the music exchanged between mated pairs.

But much of the research into animal conversation is considered disjointed and isolated, making it difficult to draw broader conclusions across species.

That's where the latest, all-encompassing review comes in. By bringing the studies together, the team of academics was able to cross-reference conversation patterns between species. It turns out, birds do it. Bees do it. Even plants may do it.

They fall into a conversation that gives as much as it takes. And timing, as it is among humans, is crucial.

"If overlap occurs, individuals became silent or flew away, suggesting that overlapping may be treated, in this species, as a violation of socially accepted rules of turn-taking," scientists noted in the study.

Some animals are more patient than others

Goose and pony looking over a fence.
'I'm sorry, I don't speak Goose.'. Dja65/Shutterstock

When it comes to conveying meaning, intervals between vocalizations are integral and incredibly nuanced. A pair of songbirds, for example, revealed a gap of less than 50 milliseconds between sending notes back and forth to each other. Sperm whales, on the other hand, are not nearly as impatient to get a word in edgewise. Their silent pauses can stretch up to two seconds. Humans, the authors noted, typically waited about a fifth of a second before chiming in.

"The ultimate goal of the framework is to facilitate large-scale, systematic cross-species comparisons," Kobin Kendrick of the University of York explains in a statement. "Such a framework will allow researchers to trace the evolutionary history of this remarkable turn-taking behavior and address longstanding questions about the origins of human language."

By building that framework for cross-species comparisons, the team hopes to ultimately trace the origins of human communication — particularly how we evolved into more thoughtful and considerate conversationalists. (Or at least, most of us.)