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Why study communication?

Animal communication is a rapidly growing field that continues to dominate the programs of international conferences and the pages of high-impact journals. This research specialty is a particular strength of the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. New findings are questioning long-held assumptions in a host of related fields including animal culture, learning, sexual selection, and signal meaning; a new synthesis is being forged that links the study of cognition, traditionally the province of experimental psychology, with function and evolution, topics that have long been central in biological science.

As in many other scientific disciplines, the study of animal behaviour has been limited by technology. For example, the availability of sound spectrograms and portable recorders in the 20th century allowed for documentation of songs and analysis of song structure that was previously unsuccessfully attempted by musical transcription (Thorpe 1954). Signaling movements, like those used in territorial or mating displays, have historically been particularly difficult to describe. Even though they are functionally important in a wide range of contexts such as such as mate choice (Rosenthal, Evans & Miller 1996) and opponent assessment (Ord, Blumstein & Evans 2001), they have been the most neglected class of animal signals. Impediments to studying movements have recently been removed by technological advances such as improved image resolution (Ophir & Galef 2003, Smith & Evans 2008), highly realistic computer-generated animations (Wantanabe & Troje 2006, Woo & Rieucau 2008), and new approaches for structural analysis (Peters & Evans 2003). The study of acoustic signals has also undergone considerable development partially owing to the development of software packages such as Cornell University’s Raven Interactive Sound Analysis software, XBAT and Avisoft SAS Lab. Paired with statistical software such as 
JMP , SPSS  and R, defining and describing songs and calls has become even more subjective and specific allowing for scientists to ask many questions such as, how songs vary with time, age, sex of caller, and if calls have individual or group signatures.

Contact calls of five different apostlebirds as displayed in Raven Pro 1.3.