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Animal Language: Baboons Might Be Reading And Worms Could Be Speaking
April 17, 2012
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Language is usually thought of as something that separates humans from other animals - our use of written and spoken words allow us to communicate anything from basic commands to complex ideas. But maybe some of those animals have more linguistic ability than we're giving them credit for. Recently, scientists claim to have uncovered some possible surprises regarding language abilities in baboons and nematodes (roundworms).

Word Up! Baboons May Be Able Distinguish English Words From Nonsense

A team of scientists at Aix-Marseille University in France has been studying baboons to see if they can distinguish between real English four-letter words and nonsense words. Within their enclosure, the baboons were able to enter booths with touchscreens that would display a four-letter word. If the word was real, they could touch an oval shape on the screen, and if it was nonsense, they tapped a plus sign. For each correct response, the baboon is automatically given a reward, in the form of food.

Jonathan Grainger, the lead researcher on the project, believes the findings could have implications for our understanding of human linguistic abilities: "The baboons were using information about which letters were where in the words in order to accurately identify them, much like human readers do. Therefore the way we humans read words might be at least partly determined by a more general and ancient ability to identify everyday objects on the basis of object parts, and the relations between these parts".

Nematodes May Speak A Universal Language (No, Not Love)


Roundworms all speak the same language, according to biologists at the California Institute of Technology. Roundworms, also known as nematodes, are tiny and abundant creatures that are found all over the planet. Scientists recently discovered that one species of roundworm - the confusingly named Caenorhabditis elegans - communicates with its fellow worms via chemical signals, but it was unclear whether any other species did the same.

Now biologists have found that a variety of nematode species seem to speak to each other with similar signals. And that discovery could be the first step to humans learning to "speak roundworm": "It really does look like we've stumbled upon the letters or words of a universal nematode language, the syntax of which we don't yet fully understand", said Paul Sternberg, professor of biology. If they can figure out the syntax, scientists hope they'll be able to develop strategies to prevent the spread of unwanted nematode species, which could save time and money for the agricultural and health-care industries.

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