What's the chattiest animal?

We can identify animals by their sounds: a pandemonium full of parrots, a cackle from hyenas and an exaltation for larks.Communication is a key component of human relationships and how we function in daily life. Animals use sounds to communicate with one another, to attract mates, to signal distress, to find oneself, and defend their territory. Similar to humans, our vocal chords serve many purposes. They help to build their social foundations and ensure their survival.Have you ever wondered which creature, out of all the ones we share this planet with, is the most vocal? What value is there in being a chatterbox when the sounds you make can also alert predators?Human terms might define "chattiness" as the time spent vocalizing and the variety of the sounds used to communicate that information. What does this mean for nonhuman species? Researchers have discovered some common patterns in species that speak a lot and in species that live quieter.Related: Why birds sing the same song repeatedly?Social creaturesOne factor that drives animal communication is how social the species might be, you might think. Some species that are more social are also more voluble. For example, flocking birds like quelea can be heard constantly cacophonizing on the wings. There are also mammals like the meerkat, which is a mongoose-like creature that hails from southern Africa. It lives in large, gregarious groups that raise their young, forage, and watch out for predators."When they are foraging, they chirp away to let everyone know, 'I am here; it is me; everything's okay; there are no prey around.' Arik Kershenbaum (a University of Cambridge zoologist) said that they make a soft, gentle contact call. He studies animal vocal communication and uses algorithms for analyzing and comparing their sounds.Red-billed quelea (Quelea quelea) fly in a flock to Kalahari, Botswana. (Image credit Delta Images via Getty Images).Kershenbaum explained to Live Science that this is a exception. Being social does not necessarily mean animals communicate a lot. Because vocalizing comes with a price. Kershenbaum said that most animals don't vocalize much because it requires energy. Kershenbaum is the author of "The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy" (Penguin Press 2021), which explores animal communication.Predation is another factor. Animals can be caught if they make sounds. These two factors put enormous pressure on vocal communication, even for highly social species like the chimpanzee, which is one of our closest living relatives. Kershenbaum stated that chimpanzees do not vocalize as much, and less than you would expect given their complex social groups. They communicate by using gestures instead of audible communication in order to keep their communication low-key.Vocals are not the only way to communicate with animals. Kershenbaum stated that animals are constantly communicating information. This includes vocal, olfactory and through posture. Other animals then form an integrated idea of what to do with the individual.Kershenbaum stated that social species are more likely to communicate their thoughts in a variety of voices. Animals that live alone communicate more easily to the rest of their world than animals who live in groups, where communication is essential to maintain social hierarchies and find and share food, and alert each other to dangers. Kershenbaum stated that it is possible to see that communication can be easier when you are part of a group than if you live on your own.Related: Animals hug one another.It can be difficult to understand what animals "say" when they voice their opinions. This is because humans often judge animal sounds based on their definition of communication, which we use through the lens of words.Evidence suggests that animal calls may have specific meanings, which researchers call referential communications. This information could be considered word-like. Some monkeys emit specific alarm calls to warn of predator threats, while dolphins make distinct whistling sounds to call their relatives. Kershenbaum stated that the sound is used as a name and could even be considered a word.These utterances are only used in situations where one sound is most effective to communicate a specific idea, he stated. Kershenbaum stated that it is a mistake to view animal communication as a series of words.Animal communication is not a series of distinct "words" that have unique meanings like speech. Kershenbaum explained that songbirds are a good example of this idea. Although they have complex vocal sequences, these sequences occur in situations where the relative simplicity of what the bird needs, such as calling for a mate, or protecting its territory, doesn't match up to the staggering variety of sounds each call contains. What's the deal?One theory suggests that the medium is the message. Birds could effectively be saying, "Look at how complex a song I can sing!" Kershenbaum stated that this means Kershenbaum must be a good father. Vocal acrobatics can be used to attract birds' mates in a way that is similar to colorful plumage.According to Erich Jarvis, a neurobiologist from The Rockefeller University, New York, "Some birds, such as mockingbirds and African gray parrots, steal sounds out of the wild to make themselves sound smarter so to speak," Jarvis says. Jarvis studies songbirds to learn how humans speak. These mockingbirds and parrots indicate that vocalizations don't communicate discrete messages like words do when we speak. They are likely to be derived from another species so they won't have any transferable meanings. These sounds are likely to be just additions to the vocal repertoire and not sounds of individual significance.Although animals might not be saying many distinct things like our speech, their vocalizations can still be rich and densely infused with meaning.Learn by listeningNo matter what animal is saying, some animals spend more time speaking than others. What makes all this chattering worthwhile?Related: Can animals laugh?Jarvis says animals can be divided into two main groups: vocal (or "innate") learners and nonvocal (or vocal) learners. Vocal learners are animals that mimic sounds to sing. Only a handful of animals can be classified as vocal-learning: humans, songbirds species and non-human mammals like bats, whales, elephants, seals, and dolphins.Thai elephants play in the water. (Image credit to wootthisak.nirongboot via Getty Images.Jarvis stated, "What's interesting" is that animals with vocal learning are also the ones that vocalize the most. Jarvis also discovered that complex vocal sequences are more common in these animals.Jarvis is curious about why vocal learners sing more frequently and more complexly. There are many benefits to singing a lot. First, sound travels long distances so it can be helpful to communicate more often. This can help animals find mates or claim territory. Some animals are more vocal and can make more complex calls to communicate more information about their status to others. However, vocalizing more can pose risks: Sounding louder attracts predators and uses energy.Jarvis posited that vocal animals tend to be less concerned about predators. He noticed that vocal learners who are particularly voluble "tend to be at the top of their food chain, like humans, whales and dolphins, or elephants." He said that they are vocalizing in the ultrasonic spectrum [so they can't hear], much like bats. "Among the birds, we discovered that the parents of the songbirds came from apex predators. Their ancestors were at top of the food chain. They seem to have overcome predation, and can then speak freely.Chatty animals, in particular, have a system that reduces the energy cost of making constant sounds. The largest amount of energy is consumed by the muscles in the vocal organs, the larynx. They require fast-firing neuron activity to control vocalizations. The activities of these neurons can produce toxic byproducts similar to the production lactic acid by working muscles. These byproducts then need to be removed. Jarvis explained that all vocal animals, including humans have protein molecules that protect fast-firing neurons against toxins overload. "So songbirds, parrots, and humans have developed mechanisms to protect their vocal pathway neurons so that we can communicate much better," Jarvis explained.Vocalizing is a great way to gain a lot of advantages for vocal species. However, there are exceptions. Zebra finches, for example, are vocal learners who vocalize very little. Jarvis stated that vocal learners tend to have a greater vocal repertoire. Jarvis stated that vocal learners who produce more complex vocalizations are those who vocalize the most.Who is the chattiest animal? Jarvis stated that "Nobody that I know has actually gone out there to quantify all the species to confirm that this is true" but that the answer is that it is a member the vocal-learning species. Based on his research, Kershenbaum concluded that dolphins, among the vocal-learning species, would be strong contenders to win the title. Kershenbaum stated that dolphins are almost always quiet when they're in the water. They are always, always vocalizing."Jarvis devotes part his research to studying what vocal learners can reveal about human spoken languages. He has discovered certain genetic mutations in vocal songbirds, which could help shed light on speech disorders in humans. It is not just curiosity that we should study how animals communicate. We could also learn more about ourselves by studying this.Original publication on Live Science