Not only did each mole rat have its own vocal signature, but each colony had its own distinct dialect, which was passed down, culturally, over generations. During times of social instability — as in the weeks after a colony’s queen was violently deposed — these cohesive dialects fell apart. When a new queen began her reign, a new dialect appeared to take hold. “The greeting call, which I thought was going to be pretty basic, turned out to be incredibly complicated,” said Dr. Barker, who is now studying the many other sounds the rodents make. “Machine-learning kind of transformed my research….”
In recent years, scientists have begun deploying this technology to decode animal communication, using machine-learning algorithms to identify when squeaking mice are stressed or why fruit bats are shouting. Even more ambitious projects are underway — to create a comprehensive catalog of crow calls, map the syntax of sperm whales and even to build technologies that allow humans to talk back. “Let’s try to find a Google Translate for animals,” said Diana Reiss, an expert on dolphin cognition and communication at Hunter College and co-founder of Interspecies Internet, a think tank devoted to facilitating cross-species communication….
[H]umanity is not on the verge of having a Rosetta Stone for whale songs or the ability to chew the fat with cats. But the work is already revealing that animal communication is far more complex than it sounds to the human ear, and the chatter is providing a richer view of the world beyond our own species…. [S]cientists have shown that these programs can tell apart the voices of individual animals, distinguish between sounds that animals make in different circumstances and break their vocalizations down into smaller parts, a crucial step in deciphering meaning.
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