“Alan! Alan! Alan!” Not only can small mammals respond to their name, but it has now been established that they are able to recognise calls specific to other individuals. Research has been conducted by Dr Simon Townsend on meerkats inhabiting the Kalahari Desert, South Africa. Dr. Townsend and his research team are the first scientists to discover that voice recognition occurs in other species apart from primates and also suggests the possibility of it being more wide spread in the animal kingdom than previously thought.
Although the research has produced interesting results, Dr. Townsend and his team had to overcome the problem of the meerkat’s reaction to an individual’s call. Although it is widely known that meerkats are social animals, it is much harder to distinguish the relationships to one another in a clan. Consequently, it is difficult to observe which individual will respond to whom. To solve this problem, audio playback was used to gauge the individual’s reaction to a call.
Recordings of staccato “close calls” (noises made to reassure other members of the clan they are there and as territory warnings) were played to an individual from one location and their response recorded. A call from the opposite orientation from which the original call came from was then played to the same meerkat and the response was once again recorded. In the final stages of the experiment, recordings from the same meerkat were played to one individual from conflicting directions.
Dr. Townsend commented this process as being a “violation of the animal’s expectation” as the meerkat making the call could not physically be in two places at the same time. Also, during these periods of “violation” the meerkats became more vigilant to their surroundings. It is possible the ability to recognise individual voices has evolved to make communication between members of the same clan more efficient due to meerkats having complex social groups.
It is hoped this research will inspire others to investigate whether other animals can also recognise individual calls and whether we have underestimated other mammals’ communication methods.
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