Publish at February 23 2022 Updated April 28 2022

How do animals listen?

What humans can learn from it to hear the world


"It is a sad thing to think that nature speaks and that the human race does not listen." Victor Hugo

"I once listened to the song of a robin who had just had her two chicks eaten on their first flight by a cat waiting for them on the ground.... Her song was so sad. It was impossible not to be moved by it. It was the song of life and spite. It was free and addressed to all. It flew away afterwards and never came back to that nest.     Animals communicate, that's for sure."  Denys Lamontagne

For ethologists, there is communication within a species when this process represents a benefit in terms of individual or group survival. So much for the ability of animals to listen being fundamental.

But each species has developed specific adaptive capacities to communicate between conspecifics or to draw useful information to move, feed, reproduce, escape from a danger. However, between the sender and the receiver there remains a "transmission channel" that attenuates or transforms the transmitted message. Listening to the world, being in communion with it, is a characteristic trait of living beings.

A thousand ways of listening to the world

You've already seen a flute player hypnotizing a cobra. But how well can he do it, when the animal has no ears? Nothing visible anyway. Unless the snake charmer's discreet tapping on the ground alerts the animal. Indeed, in humans, sound waves are most often carried by the air. They hit the eardrum causing slight vibration from bone to bone to tiny ciliated cells in the inner ear, which transform them into nerve impulses to the brain. In snakes the key to their connection to the environment is vibration. For snakes without eardrums, the inner ear is directly connected to their jaw. Snakes move on the ground and thus pick up vibrations by this means. From bone to bone the sound travels making snakes the experts in osteophony. It is the tapping of the charmer's foot on the ground that makes the cobra stand up rather than the sound of the flute. 

Like snakes, birds do not have ears with an external pinna. At most, they have openings near their eyes. However, they do have internal ears that allow them to keep their balance and also contain the organ of hearing. They are thus able to transform sound waves into nerve impulses.

They are particularly sensitive to high-pitched sounds, even to some ultrasound. The openings are covered with specialized soft feathers called auricles. The auricles extend back and down from the eye. They protect the ears while reducing wind noise. In some species, the flat face of the bird, or the pronounced shape of the auricles allow for better sound wave pickup. Perhaps an inspiration for the mobile headphones of our cell phones?

While monkeys are capable of making a joyful noise in a band, they do not organize themselves into symphony orchestras. At least, they are sensitive to the sounds offered to them. Thus on the occasion of experiments involving rewards by means of food, monkeys will prefer silence to loud, dissonant sounds. 

Listen, really

Snakes teach us that the vibration of the world carries meaning. We may be able to pick it up by meditating and feeling how our bodies vibrate. To persuade the more skeptical, they can also experience the bone resonance discovered by chance in humans. For example, a man who was deaf as a result of an illness discovered, by accident, that he was able to listen to a conversation by placing a stick on the pulpit of a church and on the end of his teeth. The sound propagated by vibration through the teeth and all the bones of the skull. From there to listen to what the living says to us, there is only one step. Make a little peace in yourself put the bones of your body on materials that resonate and let yourself be carried by the experience.

Birds teach us all the importance of sorting out the sounds. With the help of their earpieces, they are able to filter, interfering noises. Of course, humans can develop tools to mimic this quality of isolation. Headphones intra-ear mimic exceptional isolation quality. But perhaps the main noise is carried by their internal turmoil.

As for the monkeys, they remind us that there are soundscapes that everyone cultivates the details of. If for some people the waiting music has soothing virtues, for others it is a real torture. This concept of soundscape implies that sounds are inseparable from the environment that produces them. To really listen, to recognize a sound, would then mean to "put oneself in relation", which then refers to a reflex and cultural preferences for which the monkeys give us the example. To listen fully is an act of engagement with the environment, with one's body, emotions and all mental operations.

For us humans, from the moment of transmission, the channel of transmission is sometimes cluttered with beliefs, representations, obsessive parasites that play as "earworms "  and prevent us from hearing the heart of the message.

The detour through the animal world, which feels with its whole body, filters and expresses its preferences, is quite useful in reteaching us to listen and connect with our fellow human beings. 


Wikipedia Animal Communication  

Bird Keeper. Do birds have ears?  

Futura sciences  

Futura Sciences Best comparative headphones  

Wikipedia Osteophoniaéophonie#  

Futura Sciences. Snake charmers: how do they do it?  

France Culture. Sonata for an Earworm in Three Movements  

Encyclopedia Universalis

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