Talking the talk
Lizard grammar and whale songs
“Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals” by Con Slobodchikoff

Do animals have language? According to a new book, they certainly do — though not necessarily in the “one bark means yes, two barks mean no” way that animal lovers may dream of. In “Chasing Doctor Dolittle,” biologist Con Slobodchikoff looks at the ways that animals communicate. Prairie dogs, for example, use vocal alarm calls to warn each other about predators, Slobodchikoff says. Whales sing to each other; a honey bee’s dance is a type of coding; and sagebrush lizards use body posture in place of grammar. Slobodchikoff writes that these lizards’ postural displays can be combined in a possible 6,864 ways, but only 172 of them are used. In other words, he argues, the movements are deliberate tools of communication. Language — or, in Slobodchikoff’s words, “a discourse system” — can also appear as “the flap of a wing, the swish of a tail or the stomp of a hoof.” He admits that he may be accused of anthropomorphizing animals, but he maintains that there is no reason why language should be an isolated evolutionary adaptation. “I believe that animals might have languages that are designed to fit their needs,” he writes, “just as we humans have languages that are designed to fit ours.”

Zombies in nature
The Journal of Experimental Biology, January

While humans can only imagine the day that an army of monosyllabic zombies devours our brains, the zombie apocalypse is old news in nature. There’s a cadre of parasites, including viruses, fungi, protozoa, wasps and tapeworms, that hijack the nervous systems of their hosts, effectively zombifying them. Spiders in Costa Rica build webs for parasitic wasps living inside them. Horsehair worms compel hosts such as grasshoppers, which normally live on land, to enter water. A fungus takes over the abdomen of a cicada, leaving the head and thorax functional and the zombie cicada still able to fly. The parasites’ purpose — to propagate their species — is no secret to scientists. But new studies are revealing clues to the biochemistry that allows parasites to work their will. The current issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology is dedicated to the burgeoning field of neuroparasitology, which explores how parasites are able to take possession of their hosts and alter host behavior. “Neuroparasitology is a science where science meets science fiction,” editor Michael Dickinson says in the journal.

Maggie Fazeli Fard