Vol 7, Issue 2, May 2020

Forty Years on from the Question of Referential Signals in Nonhuman Communication


Vonk, J. (2020). Forty years on from the question of referential signals in nonhuman communication. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 7(2), 82-86. https://doi.org/10.26451/abc.


In 1980, two groundbreaking articles were published by the team of Seyfarth, Cheney and Marler. In these papers, the question of whether vervet monkeys produced and encoded semantic information in their alarm calls set the stage for experimental explorations of animal communication and raised questions about apparent continuity with human language. In the four decades that followed, researchers hotly debated the questions of referential communication capacities in a variety of primate and non-primate animals. This special issue of Animal Behavior and Cognition presents some of that research and ongoing debate. Authors argue whether animal alarm calls amount to more than acoustic expressions of emotion states, but they also extend the legacy of those early debates by presenting many new directions for understanding the evolution of language. Last year, we lost Dorothy Cheney – a pioneer in the area of primate cognition, and this special issue is a tribute and testament to the enduring legacy of her ingenious and collaborative approach to the study of animal communication.


referential, monkey, nonhuman communication, signals, debate