acta ethologica

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 1–12 | Cite as

Dialog with black box: using Information Theory to study animal language behaviour



In this review, three main experimental approaches for studying animal language behaviour are compared: (1) direct decoding of animals’ communication, (2) the use of intermediary languages to communicate with animals and (3) application of ideas and methods of the Information Theory for studying quantitative characteristics of animal communication. Each of the three methodological approaches has its specific power and specific limitations. Deciphering animals’ signals reveals a complex picture of natural communication in its evolutionary perspective but only fragmentary because of many methodological barriers, among which low repeatability of standard living situations seems to be a bottleneck. Language-training experiments are of great help for discovering potentials of animal language behaviour but leaves characteristics of their natural communications unclear. The use of the methods of Information Theory is based on measuring the time duration that animals spend on transmitting messages of definite information content and complexity. This approach, although does not reveal the nature of animals’ signals, provides a new dimension for studying important characteristics of natural communication systems, which have not been available before. First of all, this approach enables explorers of animals’ language behaviour to obtain knowledge just about the ability of subjects for transferring meaningful messages. Besides, the important properties of animal communication and intelligence can be evaluated such as the rate of information transmission, the complexity of transferred information and potential flexibility of communication systems.


Animal communication Experimental approach Information Theory Deciphering signals Intermediary languages 



The study was financed by RFBR 05-04-48104. Special thanks to Dr. R. Oliveira for the encouragement in writing this paper and Dr. D. Ryabko for the valuable comments on the manuscript. I thank Dr. Kleber Del Claro and another anonymous referee for constructive comments on a previous version of this paper.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Animal Systematics and EcologyNovosibirsk State UniversityNovosubirskRussia

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