Voice communication dates from a common ancestor 407 million years ago

In the 2013 comedy big words, a 40-year-old eighth grade dropout exploits a loophole to enter a national spelling bee for children. It’s a comedic premise that’s only possible because of the unique and complex ways our species has used verbal communication. There’s something to be said for body language, but we wouldn’t have gotten very far without the ability to communicate acoustically. All words, whether bad, humorous or beautiful, can trace their origins back to the very first word. Specifically, they date back to the first vocal utterance millions of years ago.

To trace the history of speech back to its invention, Gabriel Jorgewich-Cohen of the University of Zurich’s Institute and Museum of Paleontology and his colleagues turned to other non-human species that also use their lungs. and their vocal pathways to communicate. Along the way, they found vocal species that were previously thought to be non-verbal and, possibly, the very first word. Their findings were published in the journal Nature Communication.

“Our idea was to look at bands that are historically or generally considered non-vocal. Our assumption was that they actually vocalize, and they did,” Jorgewich-Cohen told SYFY WIRE.

For this purpose, the team did not examine birds, frogs or mammals, as the vocalizations of these groups are already well documented. Instead, they relied on previous research, which listed around 1,800 species from around the world and looked for gaps they could fill.

It was in these gaps that they found 53 species of animals, including tuataras, lizards, turtles, lungfish, and a limbless worm-like amphibian called a caecilian, all of which were previously thought to be unvoiced. Then they set up their microphones and listened. Over the course of two years, the animals were recorded under various conditions, with and without the presence of other members of their species, to see if they vocalized and how those vocalizations changed under different circumstances. Either way, the assumption that they needed to be heard was confirmed.

“There were a lot of surprises. The turtles were surprising not because they could make sounds but because they are super vocal. I brought together two turtles who didn’t know each other and they were super talkative. I wouldn’t stop talking,” Jorgewich-Cohen said.

This relationship between vocal communication and the presence of a peer was also valid for other species. Jorgewich-Cohen said he was particularly surprised by the Caecilian. If their hypothesis were correct, caecilians should be able to communicate vocally, but the researchers weren’t holding their breath.

“It was the species that I thought was the only one I would record and I wouldn’t get anything. But it produces sounds that are just crazy, they’re super loud and they’re funny. The first time I heard, I sent it to a friend who was helping with the field work, and he thought I had made it up to trick him,” Jorgewich-Cohen said.

It turns out there’s a lot more communication going on around us and we just don’t notice it. Cats and dogs, birds and frogs, they make it easy because they are very vocal and produce sounds in ranges and at volumes that we can easily hear. Other species are quieter, communicating in ranges outside of our perception or in environments we don’t typically frequent, such as the ocean. Other species are simply rare and no matter how loudly they scream in the untouched nature, there is no one around to hear it. At least no one with a microphone. Jorgewich-Cohen said he spent hours recording a single species in hopes of getting a sound or two.

The question then becomes where these vocalizations come from. There are competing explanations. While some suggest that acoustic communication has evolved independently multiple times – and this may be the case for some species like rattlesnakes, which communicate with sounds not created by the vocal tract – Jorgewich-Cohen and colleagues suggest that the lung-based vocalization derives from a single common ancestor who lived at least 407 million years ago. This idea is also supported by examination of the brains of various vocalizing species.

“There is evidence that there are brain channels correlated to sound production and communication and they appear to be homologous, originating from the same origin, in all animals. This confirms our finding of a common ancestor,” Jorgewich-Cohen said.

This common ancestor is currently unknown, more a collection of traits than a full-fledged animal, but it probably looked and behaved like a modern lungfish. There, on the boundary between water and land, an ancient creature broke a billion-year-old silence when it cried out into its surroundings for the very first time. It started a conversation — probably defending territory, calling out a warning, or looking for a mate — that has continued for over 400 million years. Individuals and entire species joined and left the conversation, but the chatter continued until we had roosters greeting the sun and whales singing in the depths, and countless silent conversations between turtles, fish and even limbless worm-like amphibians that no one ever thought to pay attention to.


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