A Universal ‘Language’ of Arousal Connects Humans and the Animal Kingdom

Over a century ago, naturalist Charles Darwin observed that all humans, as well as other animals, exhibit and express emotion in remarkably similar ways. He theorized that vocal expressions of feelings date back to the earliest terrestrial species, hinting that all land animals — and birds too — share a basic, inherent understanding of each other.

New research not only supports Darwin’s views, but also identifies a universal “language” of arousal emitted and understood by amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggest that we are at least somewhat like the famous fictional character Doctor Dolittle, who could decipher animal communications with ease.

“Our study shows that humans are naturally able to recognize emotional arousal across all classes of vocalizing animals,” said lead author Piera Filippi, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Aix-Marseille and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. “This outcome may find an important application in animal welfare, suggesting that humans may rely on their intuition to assess when animals are stressed.”

Prior research additionally suggests that animals understand human emotional vocal expressions. Pet owners are often more attuned to this, given the reactions that dogs, cats, horses, birds, rodents, and more have to a range of owner outbursts, from angry scolding to happy praise.

For the latest study, Filippi, senior author Onur Gunturkun, and their team went beyond investigating such a familiar collection of animal pets. They instead gathered 180 recordings of vocalizations from nine different and very diverse species: hourglass treefrog, black-capped chickadee, common raven, American alligator, African bush elephant, giant panda, domestic pig, and Barbary macaque. People who spoke English, Mandarin, and German were then recruited to evaluate the levels of arousal communicated in each animal recording.

Read more: Seeker

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