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  How hyena ‘giggles’ offer insight into communication

 

Narrator:            This is Science Today. High up in the hills above the University of California, Berkeley, researchers have a rare opportunity to study a colony of over 20 captive hyenas. Frederic Theunissen studies the vocalization of the spotted hyena.

Theunissen:            The spotted hyena produces about 15 different types of vocalization and we're interested in describing all these vocalizations, and seeing in which context it produces these vocalizations; and seeing whether they have some of the open-endedness and plasticity that you might find in a more sophisticated language, like humans' language, in the sense that it would produce a different sound in a different behavioral context. 

Narrator:            What they've found is that the hyena's hallmark ‘giggle' is highly individualized and may play an important role in communication.

Theunissen:            Being able to study an animal which is not a primate but which also has a complex social structure and actually a communication system that is as sophisticated allows us to really understand what was needed to evolve the ability of language.

Narrator:            For Science Today, I'm Larissa Branin.