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Analytical Chemistry

Goat Dialects, Tarsier Talk, Chameleon Charm

by Bethany Halford
March 5, 2012 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 90, ISSUE 10

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Credit: Shutterstock
Baa with a brogue: Pygmy goats have accents.
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Credit: Shutterstock
Baa with a brogue: Pygmy goats have accents.

When goats get together, it’s a regular gabfest. Baa this. Baa that. But it turns out that goats are yammering to one another in accents, or as the Newscripts gang likes to think of them, baaccents.

Elodie F. Briefer and Alan G. McElligott of Queen Mary’s School of Biological & Chemical Sciences at the University of London studied the bleats of pygmy goat kids and found that the youngsters developed accents on the basis of their social group (Anim. Behav., DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.01.020).

The researchers recorded the calls of both siblings and half siblings when they were one week old, an age when goat kids are typically sequestered with their siblings to protect them from predators. The researchers then tested the kids again at five weeks old, when the young goats have normally joined social groups with animals of the same age. Briefer and McElligott found in the earlier recordings that siblings sounded more alike than did half siblings. But as the kids aged, half siblings tended to sound similar to one another if they had been hanging out.

“This is really surprising, because mammals such as goats were not expected to have such flexibility in their vocalizations,” Briefer tells Newscripts. With the exception of certain mammals that are known to imitate sounds, such as dolphins and whales, mammal vocalizations were thought to be genetically determined with no effect from the social environment, she says.

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Credit: Shutterstock
Silent shouts: Tarsier talk is ultrasonic.
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Credit: Shutterstock
Silent shouts: Tarsier talk is ultrasonic.

So what does this mean for other mammals? Could there be a regional burr to your cat’s purr? “Many more mammals than we previously thought might be capable of developing accents,” Briefer says.


If the tiny tarsier speaks with an accent, it’ll be tough to tell. Until recently, these fist-sized fur balls—native to the Philippines—weren’t thought to talk at all. They were unusually quiet and just seemed to yawn a lot, making the bug-eyed primates even more lovable.

But researchers led by Marissa A. Ramsier of Humboldt State University, in California, and Nathaniel J. Dominy of Dartmouth College discovered that those sweet little yawns are actually ultrasonic screams beyond the frequency range of human hearing (Biol. Lett., DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.1149).

A tarsier can hear sounds up to 91 kHz and make sounds at around 70 kHz, the team found. That’s far beyond the shrill 20-kHz sounds that human ears pick up. This is the first time a primate has been shown to use only ultrasound vocalizations, the researchers note. It’s possible this gives tarsiers their own private communication channel to warn one another of approaching predators and to listen for insects—a favorite snack.


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Credit: PLoS One
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Credit: PLoS One

One thing the tarsiers might be chattering about is the charm-sized chameleons that have joined them in the ranks of cute critters. Miguel Vences of Germany’s Technical University of Braunschweig and colleagues recently found four new species of tiny chameleons in northern Madagascar (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031314).

Although the four types of chameleons look similar, genetic tests prove they are indeed different species. Juveniles of the smallest species found, Brookesia micra, are so tiny they can perch on the head of a matchstick—an adorable image the Newscripts gang couldn’t resist.

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