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Unit information: Communication and Cognition in Animal Societies in 2021/22

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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 and cognition in mediating social behaviours and how communication networks can shape social cognition. We will discuss why some species have bigger brains than others and consider the relationship between brain size and social cognition. We will also 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 behaviour
  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 discuss the links between social communication, social ecology and cognition
  6. Be able to define intelligence and cognition, and describe and evaluate methods of measuring them
  7. Be able to critically evaluate the social brain hypothesis
  8. Be able to develop hypotheses to explain communication and problem-solving behaviour that might be observed in animals
  9. 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.


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How much time the unit requires
Each credit equates to 10 hours of total student input. For example a 20 credit unit will take you 200 hours of study to complete. Your total learning time is made up of contact time, directed learning tasks, independent learning and assessment activity.

See the Faculty workload statement relating to this unit for more information.

The Board of Examiners will consider all cases where students have failed or not completed the assessments required for credit. The Board considers each student's outcomes across all the units which contribute to each year's programme of study. If you have self-certificated your absence from an assessment, you will normally be required to complete it the next time it runs (this is usually in the next assessment period).
The Board of Examiners will take into account any extenuating circumstances and operates within the Regulations and Code of Practice for Taught Programmes.