July 19, 2016

The buzz about nature vs. nurture in animal communication

by Bonnie Denmark

Researchers at Cardiff University in Wales are buzzing about honeybee communication as they seek to discover if bees have regional accents. Bees have a repertoire of about 10 sounds that communicate different messages. Among these, their characteristic hum when content, a louder buzz when threatened, their call for missing comrades made by rubbing their back legs together, and a piping sound issued when about to swarm. Microbiology Professor Les Baillie of the Cardiff research team told The Telegraph: “The different noises give us an idea of what is going on in the hive, but we started to wonder whether those sounds differed between regions. Could bees be making different noises depending on where their hive is?”

Do bees have regional accents? This is the question that Cardiff University researchers are setting out to answer, according to a July 15 press release. (©Maciej A. Czyzewski, Wikimedia Commons)

The vast majority of animal species have some communication system, but the degree to which the system is innate versus culturally influenced varies from species to species. In most animals, the communication system is genetically programmed. Fireflies, for example, communicate by blinking their light, but the signal is completely innate so they are incapable of producing or interpreting new blinking patterns. A cuckoo bird can be raised never hearing another cuckoo bird sing, yet will whistle a perfectly formed cuckoo song. Similarly, brown-headed cowbirds are hatched in other birds’ nests, but they grow up singing cowbird songs rather than the song of the foster-parent birds who raised them.

The songs of brown-headed cowbirds are completely innate. (public domain)

Human language ability is a case of both nature and nurture. Brains of all human children are biologically set up to figure out the patterns of the language they are exposed to by their caretakers. There is no single “language gene” responsible for all aspects of human language, but researchers at Oxford University in England have identified a specific protein encoded by the FOXP2 gene that is necessary for normal language development. (Learn about the chemical pathway from genes to proteins in our module Gene Expression.) The team found a mutation in one of the 2,500 units of DNA that comprise the gene. This mutation showed up in almost half the members of a large multigenerational family, resulting in severe language deficits. Individuals with the faulty FOXP2 gene had serious speech disorders and trouble processing spoken language. Project geneticist Anthony Monaco noted, “It is extraordinary that such a minute change in the gene is sufficient to disrupt a faculty as vital as language.”

But while the human brain is genetically programmed to acquire language, the particular language a human will speak is a function of the environment in which a child is raised—hence, the culturally-transmitted component. For example, a Chinese baby adopted at birth by parents who speak only French will speak French but no Chinese. Likewise, regional dialects of the same language are determined by environment, so while some Bostonians may “Pahk the cah,” Southerners may render “I’m fine” as “Ah’m fahn.” Meanwhile, “Don” and “dawn” sound like two different words in New York but are pronounced the same in California.

Just as human language has regional variations, the communication of some other animal species exhibits regional differences. If animals have an “accent” based on their geographic location, this means that the variations are learned from the surrounding community rather than being genetically encoded. Apparently, the basic nature of the song of some bird species is biologically determined, but the details can only be learned from exposure to the songs of others of their species. Certain calls and songs of a bird called the chaffinch vary depending on its geographical area. The message is the same, but the “pronunciation”—or form—of the song is different. Regional variation has also been observed in dolphins, killer whales, and chimpanzees. And a five-year study is currently underway in Sweden to find out if cats have regional accents.

Dolphins have “accents,” using signature whistles to identify their pod. (©Alexander Vasenin, Wikimedia Commons)

Linguists and biologists aim to discover how much of the communication system of a species is genetically programmed and how much is culturally determined. The Cardiff University bee researchers are asking over 3,000 beekeepers across Wales to send in audio recordings of their hives for analysis. If regional variations are detected, data collection will be expanded to include 40,000 additional hives across the UK. Until now bee communication, as complex as it is, has been thought to be completely innate. But we’ll see if new information will lead to a new conclusion. Bee sure to stay tuned.


Read the Cardiff University press release Do Bees Have Accents? (July 15, 2016)

For another fascinating aspect of bee communication, read about The Honey Bee Dance Language, discovered by Nobel Prize winning zoologist Karl Von Frisch.

Written by

Bonnie Denmark holds an MA in linguistics and teacher certification in English, ESL, and Spanish. She has devoted her professional life to educational and accessibility issues as a computational linguist, multimedia curriculum developer, educator, and writer. She has also worked nationally and internationally as a language instructor, educational technology consultant, and teacher trainer. Bonnie joined the Visionlearning team as a literacy specialist in 2011, assisting the project by developing comprehension aids for science modules and creating other STEM learning materials.

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