Interspecies Communication - Trust, Berlin

Talk given as part of the event Those Planet Bodies with Calum Bowden and Anna Mikkola at Trust, 15th Aug 2019. We shared three stories about an alien planet Earth. Fleshy and rocky bodies, inhuman languages, and microbial murmurs.
Here is the transcription of my talk with some minor adjustments.

My name is Parrr and I have backgrounds in Biochemistry and Interaction Design. I was one of the four Trust research residents this Spring.

Before fun facts and memes, I will first lay out some context.

My thinking is that I can not escape my subjective experience through my own body. However, I still have the strong urge to try to better understand myself and others.

So I ask myself. What will my day be like if I was born a mayfly that doesn’t even have the longevity of 24 hours? Will I perceive time differently?

Or what if I was born a Tartigrade that has the toughest body to survive through the most extreme environments, or as you may know, sometimes got accidently spilled on the moon? And from the perspective of a Tartigrade, how will I think about human’s fragile flesh?

Or what if I was born a wild boar who shares the same cityscape with human beings?

So I have many of these kind of questions in my head.

Actually, there are a wide range of animals that share the same living space CLOSELY with us.

Humans have a complicated thinking towards other animals. There are sharp lines between those animals that we love and protect and those we do not. And where we draw these moral lines varies across time and across cultures.

But I feel there is a very strong element in this complicated thinking, which is the human-animal division. And it seems to me that it’s heavily strengthened by the domestication process. Along the progress of the history, animals have been domesticated for humans’ increasing demand for food, transportation, and also emotional support. For example, dogs have been domesticated by humans for at least 15,000 years.

But my own intuitive thinking towards human-animal division is perhaps to remove it, to remove humans from the dominant position.

We are just simply not the only and dominant species in the world. Perhaps, every living creature is only a temporary aggregation of organisms. After one dies, these organisms simply separate, retreat to the surrounding world, and then at some time point in the future, some of them gather again to form a new life. It could be a human, or a bird, or this one-cell creature here.

This is a lacrymaria olor. Look how good its control over its own physiology and behaviours is. It is hunting bacteria or other microorganisms from the environment, and it has no brain! Also this video is in real-time speed!

Maybe by thinking in this way, I could eventually realise my naive wish to show all things bright and beautiful, to send the message that life comes from nature and goes back to nature.

Also it’s not that philosophical or abstract, it’s about our existing relationship with others. If we appreciate the living creatures around us, will we also start to appreciate our human fellows, who breathe the same air, so perhaps no more discrimination, racism, sexism...?

Anyway, my temptation to research forever and eventually get no work done is huge. I can’t even resist. However, my rational self, normally week, was telling me to just focus on something. So during the last half of my trust residency, I got intrigued by birds.

As how I always ask, what if I was born a bird? Or in this project, what kind of work that I’d like to show to birds? Can I maybe sing to birds or dance to birds? 

By the way, this one in the photo is a simaenaga! Look how cute it is!

Anyway, you might ask why birds then? Instead of me keep talking to you guys, I’d like to invite you to take a few little quiz.

The first one - The birds living in the city sing differently from their countryside relatives. True or false?

The answer is true.

To explain, here goes the second one.

Which aspects of bird sounds do these differences lie in? I have a few options for you, in volume, in pitch or in dialects?

Take a guess.

Yes, city birds sing louder and at a higher pitch than countryside birds, according to a research report from Max Planck Institute in 2013. It’s mostly because of the traffic noise, their singing even differs in weekdays than in weekends.

Regarding the dialect, I have no answer yet. We will actually be able to find out more information from Berlin Naturkundemuseum in one year or two.

This may, Naturkundemuseum launched its new citizen science project to encourage everyone in Berlin and later all over Germany to use their Naturblick app and record nightingale songs. These sounds will then be evaluated using bioacoustic and ecological methods. So then we will know more about the variability of songs and also the current distribution of Nightingale.

Very soon, we will find out the answer for the third quiz, which is whether a female berlin Nightingale would like to flirt with a male Bavarian Nightingale.

Speaking of mating behaviour, here comes the fourth and the last quiz. Is it easier or harder for blue tits that nest close to streetlights to find a romantic partner, compared to those that nest far away from streetlights?

It’s easier, because those blue tits misinterpret the streetlights as the light from sunrise, they wake up earlier, then they sing earlier, so they get noticed by potential romantic partners sooner.

That’s the end of the quiz.

You see, even though these city birds are not domesticated, their behaviours are changing towards human living. Hope you got a taste of this Evolution in motion from this quiz.

Here are more fun facts. In this review, some ornithologists told us that unlike our primate cousins, bird babies can do the vocal learning, just like human babies. And vocal learning is a crucial factor in speech acquisition. In this process, there is not only behavioural similarities, but also neural and genetic similarities.

This opens huge possibilities for experimenting communication with birds, or having fun with bird sounds and behaviours in the future.

I would like to add another example here to explain how crazy the environment can change things, and not only behaviours but also physiology!

This is a flatworm, no matter how scientists cut it, it regenerate into an intact body. However the photo on the right here shows its morphological formation into a different body. And this is not caused by genetic modification, as how we usually would assume. It’s modificated by the change of electric fields. This is an experiment by a computational system biologist Michael Levin. His project has shown us, instead of genes or brain, it actually could all come down to the living body, the body in motion that perceiving and experiencing the surrounding world. 

Sorry I got distracted by another topic again. But this really inspires me to think how much our electromagnetic mapping is like in cities and how this invisible field can change city bird sounds and behaviours.

Okay let’s get back to birds again. So since there are huge possibilities to dig into what and how we can experiment with our communication with bird.

I had a very initial idea, which is to use machine learning so to generate artificial bird sounds.
There are huge bird sound archives from Cornell University

and also Berlin Naturkundemuseum, I was thinking perhaps I could make use of all these sound files, or just these spectrograms, to train an artificial bird language. And then I could play it to birds to see how they might react!

This does sound fun to start, but I still feel there is still something missing. And this will be my work for the next stage!

And you know what, instead of artificial bird sounds, there are actually already a group of humans speaking birdsound-like language for their daily communication.

There is a village called Kuşköy, on the rainy, mountainous Black Sea coast of Turkey, where the residents whistle because they live too far away from each other. Let me show you some examples. For example, this one means “Do you have fresh bread?” And this one means “One kilogram of tomatoes, please.” Not only for practical communication, there is also phrase for emotional expression, like this one “The black sea is beautiful.

They adapted standard Turkish syllables into piercing tones that can be heard from more than half a mile away. 

Kids from that village used to learn that at school, but nowadays this language is rapidly dying out, because now you can just send a text instead of a whistle.

Last but not least, it’s meme time!
Here are a few images that I found uncanny. They seems like some attempts of communication but went wrong.

And this is the end of my talk, Thank you very much for staying with me.

Hope you enjoy the rest of the evening with Calum and Anna.

Berlin, Germany