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Simon Townsend, PhD (Associate Professor)

 Simon Townsend



I am interested in the complexity underlying vocal communication and cognition in animals. By taking a broad comparative approach focusing on both primate, non-primate mammals and birds (meerkats, wolves, vervet monkeys, chimpanzees, pied babblers, chestnut-crowned babblers) in the wild and captivity, we aim to unpack the similarities and differences between animal and human communication and ultimately what selective conditions might have been responsible for the evolution of the human language faculty.

Research themes:

Comparative psychology, comparative linguistics, language evolution, syntax, phonology, semantics, animal behaviour, animal cognition, primates, non-primate mammals and birds.

Contact Details

Representative Publications:

  • Townsend, S.W., Engesser, S., Stoll, S., Zuberbühler, K. & Bickel, B. (2018). Compositionality in animals and humans. PLoS Biology 16(8):e2006425.

  • Engesser, S., Ridley, A.R., Manser, M.B., Manser, A. & Townsend, S.W. (2018). Internal acoustic structuring in pied babbler recruitment cries specifies the form of recruitment. Behavioral Ecology doi:10.1093/beheco/ary088.

  • Townsend, S.W., Koski, S.E., Byrne, R.W., Bickel, B., Böckle, M., Burkart, J.M., Flower, T., Gaunet, F., Glock, H.J., Goncalves, I.D.B., Gruber, T., Jansen, D.A.W.A.M., Liebal, K., Linke, A., Miklosi, Moore, R., van Schaik, C., Slocombe, K.E., Stoll, S., Vail, A., Wild, M., Waller, B., Zuberbühler, K. & Manser, M. B. (2017). Exorcising Grice’s ghost: an empirical approach to studying intentional communication in animals. Biological Reviews, 92, 1427-1433.

  • Engesser, S., Ridley, A.R. & Townsend, S.W. (2016). Meaningful call combinations and compositional processing in the southern pied babbler. PNAS 113, 5976-5981. (doi:10.1073/pnas.1600970113)
  • Engesser, S., Crane, M.S., Savage, J.L., Russell, A.F. & Townsend, S.W. (2015). Experimental evidence for phoneme structure in the vocal system of a non-human. PLoS Biology 13(6): e1002171.

  • Watson, S., Townsend, S.W., Schel, A.M., Wilke, C., Wallace, E. Cheng, L., West, V. & Slocombe, K.E. (2015). Vocal Learning in the Functionally Referential Food Grunts of Chimpanzees. Current Biology 25, 1-5.

  • Collier, K., Bickel, B., van Schaik, C., Manser, M.B. & Townsend, S.W. (2014). Language evolution: Syntax before phonology? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281, 1788 20140263.

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