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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:

Proximate mechanisms underlying animal vocal production. Are vocalisations just hardwired responses to environmental stimuli or do animals have a degree of “control” over their production?

Information content of animal vocalisations. What external and internal information is encoded within the acoustic structure of animal vocalisations, what acoustic parameters are responsible (source vs. filter) and is this meaningful to recipients?

Referential communication in animals. To what can animals “refer”?

Evolutionary origins of human vocal sequencing skills (phonology and syntax)

Contact Details

Representative Publications:

  • 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.

  • Townsend, S.W., Charlton, B.D. & Manser, M.B. (2014). Formant cues to identity and predator context in the barks of meerkats. Animal Behaviour 95, 143-149.

  • Mazzini, F.*, Townsend, S.W*., Viranye, Z. & Range, F. (2013). Wolf howling is mediated by relationship quality rather than underlying emotional stress. Current Biology 23, 1677–1680. * Joint 1st Author

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