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Sometimes, when we want to be careful about our communication or we are not sure who is listening, we adopt a formal tone and say something like,“To whom am I speaking?” This can be a humorous inquiry when we know very well who is listening and we do not have to be careful. Or it can be a serious question when, as observers, we are not sure who is being addressed. An animal communication network approach, as outlined by Peter McGregor in his previous writings and now in his excellent book Animal Communication Networks, asks us to reconsider to whom animals are speaking when they signal. Are they being careful in ways we have not previously considered? Are they addressing a number of different recipients in ways we have not understood? What are the implications of these, and other, considerations for the study of signaling strategies?

For years, researchers in the field of animal communication have focused primarily on the dyad of sender and receiver. Although they were aware that communication events were actually more complex, it was often necessary to first demonstrate more straightforward aspects of these events to provide a strong basis for further study. The dyad was also often the easiest and quickest aspect that could be analyzed—especially before the development of such things as handheld electronic event recorders, compact digital audio and video equipment, and computers with statistical packages.

In this book, Peter McGregor shows us that it is difficult to build a strong basis for understanding communication if one looks only at dyads, and that the time has come to build on the dyad information base. He offers a network approach as a logical next step in a maturing field. It seems we live in an age of networks—brain networks, genetic networks, and, now, communication networks. McGregor is a pioneer in this area. This book is a wonderful introduction to the ideas in the field of animal communication networks and to the steadily growing set of data that seem to support them, building on the foundational studies of animal communication.

McGregor is currently a reader in applied zoology at Cornwall College, United Kingdom, and has also been a Marie Curie Fellow at Cornwall College; a professor of behavioral biology in, and head of, the Department of Animal Behaviour at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark; and a special professor at the Institute of Applied Psychology in Lisbon, Portugal. He is the editor of Bioacoustics. His own research focuses on social behavior and communication in birds, fish, and fiddler crabs, and on the implications of communication studies for conservation issues. His previous work about communication networks is perhaps best known from publications with two collaborators, Tom M. Peake (McGregor and Peake 2000) and Torben Dabelsteen (McGregor and Dabelsteen 1996). This book is an important next step in bringing the concepts from this earlier work to a larger audience.

The volume provides an excellent outline of the concepts the editor and his close collaborators would like researchers to consider. (McGregor wrote the preface and general introduction; Peake and Dabelsteen wrote the first two chapters.) There are carefully crafted definitions, clear statements of what is being considered and what is not, and a wonderful collection of examples and thoughtful comments by all three of these scientists. But McGregor is not simply attempting to push his own idea with this volume. He is more interested in having colleagues clearly see the concepts and decide if and how they might be of value to them in their studies. As he states in his excellent introduction to the first section of the book, “A network perspective will become more commonly adopted only if it is clearly better able to explain communication behaviours than a dyadic approach” (p. 9).

This editorial approach makes the collection unusual, in that it approaches the reader with an open mind. Although the focus of the book is on explaining and refining the communication network approach, McGregor included researchers who do not profess to be using this approach, and he asked them to consider whether it would add to their understanding in a meaningful way. This makes for especially interesting reading; it is not often that contributors to a collection are allowed, and even encouraged, to question the very focus they were asked to discuss. This openness, and the inclusion of researchers from a broad spectrum of approaches and considerations (in lab and field, studying invertebrates through vertebrates, using a variety of techniques in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats), makes it easy for researchers who have not thought about the network approach to see whether or not it would be helpful for them to do so. In short, there is something here for everyone, information that almost any researcher can relate to. The last section of the book even includes unusual perspectives, such as the implications of networks for using modeling approaches (chapter 26, by Andrew M. R. Terry and Robert Lachlan).

McGregor defines a communication network most simply as “groupings of several individuals that constitute the social context in which communication takes place.” He points out that “communication is inherently social, but the wider social context in which communication takes place is rarely considered explicitly,” and that “if a signal travels further than the average spacing between individuals, then there is potential for a communication network to exist, so it could be considered the commonest context in which communication occurs.” I would have liked to have seen more credit given to W. J. Smith (1977) for stressing the importance of context as a major player in any communication event; however, it is good to see someone seriously address the issue once again.

McGregor includes the concepts of eavesdropping and audience effects as important aspects of network communication; however, the various chapter authors provide many other ideas and considerations of what should and should not be included in this perspective. They point out alternative explanations, problems, and assumptions and often outline further testing that might help resolve issues.

I found this book exciting, thought-provoking, and an important contribution. Every chapter was strong. This was helped in large part by several technical requirements imposed by the editor:

  • The 26 chapters were divided into four sections so that chapters within each section clearly related to one another.

  • McGregor wrote clear, concise introductions to each of those sections; these alone provide an excellent introduction to the concepts, questions, and problems discussed in each section and could be read separately for a quick but excellent overview of the important aspects of the book.

  • There was an excellent organizational structure imposed on each chapter: an introduction that sets the stage and explains how the chapter authors feel it relates to the focus of the book, followed by details of each author's own and related research, a summary, and suggestions for future research. This organization allows each set of authors to place the concepts in their own context, define and redefine terms to fit their own research, raise questions, elucidate new problems, and outline future directions. The chapter introductions, in particular, are often extremely insightful about the issues raised when considering a network approach for a particular research area.

  • The editor also asked authors to comment on each other's chapters and incorporate comments and cross-references into their own chapters, making for a much more cohesive book than most edited volumes.

There are a number of other strengths as well. Animal Communication Networks is a great resource for those seeking a good basic review of information about a specific taxon, technique, or communication situation (e.g., dawn chorusing in birds). Many chapters also provide excellent reviews of important concepts in a particular research area. For example, Karen E. McComb and David Reby (chapter 17) give a concise review of sound generation in terrestrial animals; Vincent M. Janik (chapter 18) provides a similar review of aquatic communication, including a compelling explanation for why dyadic signaling was studied first; and Irene M. Pepperberg (chapter 24) offers a clear restatement of the “cognitive question” in communication. The volume also includes several chapters on human communication, bringing our own species back into the fold of communication studies (rather than leaving it to linguistics or studies of consciousness), and it is exciting to see how a network approach might provide insights into our own behavior. But perhaps most important, each set of authors pulls together diverse literature from their field and considers it in new and interesting ways. The insights gained are at least thought-provoking, and when the new perspective seems to enhance our understanding, as in nestling begging (chapter 9, by Andrew G. Horn and Marty L. Leonard), they are inspiring.

I urge all communication researchers to read this book. It is clear and accessible, allowing readers to see how this perspective might or might not apply to behaviors both seemingly already understood and currently mysterious. As I read it, I found myself rethinking and reevaluating my own studies. To whom are laughing gulls speaking when they give long, loud calls toward specific individuals during group courtship and on densely packed breeding colonies? To whom are prairie dogs, monkeys, and domestic cats “speaking” when they use tail signals in social groups, where the signal is visible to many individuals and where individuals are often simultaneously signaling and receiving? A communication network approach may offer the best perspective on these questions, and I am already thinking of new observations and experiments that could be attempted.

References cited

  1. P. K. McGregor and T. Dabelsteen . 1996. Communication networks. Pages 409–425. in D. E. Kroodsma and E. H. Miller , editors. eds. Ecology and Evolution of Acoustic Communication in Birds Ithaca (NY) Cornell University Press. Google Scholar

  2. P. K. McGregor and T. M. Peake . 2000. Communication networks: Social environments for receiving and signalling behaviour. Acta Ethologica 2:71–81. Google Scholar

  3. W. J. Smith 1977. The Behavior of Communicating: An Ethnological Approach Cambridge (MA) Harvard University Press. Google Scholar

PENNY L. BERNSTEIN "TO WHOM AM I SPEAKING?," BioScience 57(5), 448-450, (1 May 2007).
Published: 1 May 2007

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