Skip to main content

Unit information: Communication and Cognition in Animal Societies in 2020/21

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Communication and Cognition in Animal Societies
Unit code BIOL30012
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Dr. King
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Biological Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Life Sciences

Description including Unit Aims

Communication is ubiquitous in animal societies and a central part of animal social behaviour. One signal produced by an individual has the power to induce a response in a receiver that, in turn, can alter the behaviour of the signalling animal. Communication signals, therefore, facilitate the exchange of information between individuals, often directly affecting individual Darwinian fitness. In this unit we will explore how complex communication and social cognition guide animal decision-making, by providing fundamental insights into animal minds and the function of communicative signals in diverse taxa. We will describe the importance of animal communication in mediating social behaviours, such as resource defence, mate attraction, and recognition of conspecifics, and how communication networks can shape social cognition. We will examine the evolution of complex communication in animals and the similarities and differences with human language evolution, and how flexible communication systems can facilitate cultural diversity in animal societies. Throughout the unit we will place particular emphasis on the innovative techniques and experimental designs currently used to study communication and cognition in both captive and wild animal populations.

Intended Learning Outcomes

By the end of this unit, students will:

  1. Be able to explain how communication signals inform animal decision-making
  2. Be able to show how communication networks can shape social cognition
  3. Be able to relate communication complexity and language evolution to the mechanisms underlying information transfer
  4. Be able to explain the links between flexible communication and cultural diversity
  5. Be able to develop hypotheses to explain communication and problem-solving behaviour that might be observed in animals
  6. Be able to apply the principles of good experimental design to test hypotheses about the mechanisms underlying animal communication and cognition in a range of contexts.

Teaching Information

Lectures, directed reading, research and/or problem-solving activities; and independent study.

Assessment Information

Summative written assessment, with one essay question to be selected from a choice of two.

Reading and References


  • This is a fast-moving field, taught mainly from the primary literature, and so many of the key papers will change year-on-year. However, an excellent core text on the general principles is Bradbury, J.W. & Vehrencamp, S.L. 2011. Principles of animal communication (2nd ed.). Sunderland, MA, US: Sinauer Associates.


  • Freeberg TM, Dunbar RIM, Ord TJ. 2012. Social complexity as a proximate and ultimate factor in communicative complexity. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 367, 1785–1801.
  • Hauser MD, Chomsky N, Fitch WT. 2002. The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298, 1569–1579.
  • Garland EC, Goldizen AW, Rekdahl ML, Constantine R, Garrigue C, Hauser ND, Poole MM, Robbins J, Noad MJ. 2011. Dynamic horizontal cultural transmission of humpback whale song at the ocean basin scale. Curr. Biol. 21, 687–691.
  • Janik VM. 2013. Cognitive skills in bottlenose dolphin communication. Trends Cogn. Sci. 17, 157–159.
  • Seyfarth RM, Cheney DL, Marler P. 1980. Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: evidence of predator classification and semantic communication. Science 210, 801–803.
  • King SL, Friedman WF, Allen SJ, Gerber L, Jensen FH, Wittwer S, Connor RC, Krützen M. 2018. Bottlenose dolphins retain individual vocal labels in multi-level alliances. Curr. Biol. 28, 1993–1999.
  • Engesser S, Ridley AR, Townsend SW. 2016. Meaningful call combinations and compositional processing in the southern pied babbler. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 113, 5976–5981.