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Tomorrow's world

Decoding the language of animals

Who needs Dr Dolittle? We’ve got BatGPT. Getty

There were numerous attempts in the 20th century to teach human language to animals, says Karen Bakker in Scientific American. But apart from a young gorilla called Koko who learned to “talk” using 1,000 hand signals, those efforts all failed. Today, rather than trying to find out whether bees can speak English, scientists are trying to decode the language they already use with one another. “Bioacoustics” researchers are installing a new generation of tiny microphones everywhere from the Arctic to the Amazon, and on the backs of deep-diving turtles and high-flying birds. Advanced AI then scans the “data deluge” these recorders log, in a bid to spot “patterns in non-human communication”.

And it works. A study monitoring Egyptian fruit bats identified 15,000 distinct bat sounds, and closely observed their behaviour to figure out what they meant. It turns out they spend their time arguing over food. More intriguing is that they specify each other’s genders when they communicate, and even appear to have “individual names”. Mother bats speak to their young in a form of “motherese”, babbling and cooing just as human mothers do – except whereas human mums raise the pitch of their voice, bat mums lower theirs. When honeybees “speak” to one another, they use body movements as well as sounds to make themselves understood. And because AI is also brilliant at analysing video footage, scientists are starting to uncover the whole package of bee chat. This new ability is “slowly opening our minds” to the wonderful, rich world that non-human species live in. Better yet, we may be “at the brink of interspecies communication”.