Functionally Referential Communication in Mammals: The Past, Present and the Future


  • (Invited Review)


Simon W. Townsend, Animal Behaviour, Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.



Whether animal vocalizations have the potential to communicate information regarding ongoing external events or objects has received considerable attention over the last four decades. Such ‘functionally referential signals’ (Macedonia & Evans 1993) have been shown to occur in a range of mammals and bird species and as a consequence have helped us understand the complexities that underlie animal communication, particularly how animals process and perceive their socio-ecological worlds. Here, we review the existing evidence for functionally referential signals in mammals according to the framework put forward in the seminal Macedonia and Evans review paper. Furthermore, we elucidate the ambiguities regarding the functionally referential framework that have become obvious over the last years. Finally, we highlight new potential areas for investigation within referential signalling. We conclude the functionally referential framework is still informative when interpreting the meaning of animal vocalizations but, based on emerging research, requires further integration with other approaches investigating animal vocal complexity to broaden its applicability.