Sentry duty and a three-word vocabulary

Sat 27 May 2006 06:53 PM

There were many good talks at the SEP last week, and I am still mulling over some of them.

I'll mention Brian Skyrms' talk briefly, because I am still mulling it over but don't have anything deep to say about it.

Brian offered simple evolutionary models of animal signalling. As an example, he pointed to Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth's work on meerkat and monkey signaling; see especially their paper on meerkats [pdf]. Meerkats take turns standing sentry, and call out if they seeing anything worth mentioning. They have (roughly) a three word vocabulary: raptor, jackal, and snake.

I was curious about meerkats in contrast with his other examples, because the meerkat signaling system can't be wholly separated from their taking turns on sentry duty. Even if one behavior predated the other, each is more valuable when accompanied by the other. So it's too simple to treat selection for the signaling behavior in isolation.

Also: If we learned meerkat vocabulary, we could play roshambo with it:

-- 1... 2... 3... jackal!

-- My snake bites your jackal.

-- How about best two out of three?