Sussex researchers talk about talking to the animals for BBC TV documentary

Professor Karen McComb with Lucy Cooke, presenter of Talk to the Animals, and one of the horses involved in Professor McComb's studies in mammal communication.

Mammal communication experts at the University of Sussex will be demonstrating just how far they’ve got with their research for a major two-part BBC TV documentary this week.

Professor Karen McComb and Dr David Reby are appearing in ‘Talk to the Animals,’ which is being broadcast on BBC One on Wednesday and Thursday (16 and 17 July) at 8pm and features experts from around the globe who are working on finding out what animals are saying to each other.

Professor McComb, who acted as a scientific consultant for the programmes, presented by zoologist Lucy Cooke, will recreate an experiment in which she shows how horses have complex mental representations for their herd mates, the sight of a familiar horse apparently conjuring the sound of his whinny.

Dr Reby will be showing how the resonance of red deer stags’ roars influence how male competitors react to the calls and how hinds choose their partner for mating.

Professor McComb says: “Trying to understand how animals communicate and how they see the world is endlessly fascinating. They are far from ‘dumb’ creatures. In fact, our studies frequently show that mammals have very complex communication systems and highly sophisticated ways of processing information on the world around them.”

Dr Reby says: “Studying animal vocal communication gives us invaluable insights into the origins and evolution of human speech.”

The programmes this week will also feature sociable mongooses in Uganda, curious hippos in the Nile, and bats that eavesdrop on frogs.

Professor McComb and Dr Reby established the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research at Sussex.  Professor McComb’s other recent studies have helped us understand cats purring and shown the ability of elephants to detect language and gender cues in human voices.

Dr Reby’s other studies have shown how dogs make sense of size and how koalas have evolved a unique vocal organ.

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 15 July 2014