Information theory, animal communication, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

Laurance R. Doyle, Brenda Mccowan, Simon Johnston, Sean F. Hanser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


We present ongoing research in the application of information theory to animal communication systems with the goal of developing additional detectors and estimators for possible extraterrestrial intelligent signals. Regardless of the species, for intelligence (i.e., complex knowledge) to be transmitted certain rules of information theory must still be obeyed. We demonstrate some preliminary results of applying information theory to socially complex marine mammal species (bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales) as well as arboreal squirrel monkeys, because they almost exclusively rely on vocal signals for their communications, producing signals which can be readily characterized by signal analysis. Metrics such as Zipf's Law and higher-order information-entropic structure are emerging as indicators of the communicative complexity characteristic of an "intelligent message" content within these animals' signals, perhaps not surprising given these species' social complexity. In addition to human languages, for comparison we also apply these metrics to pulsar signalsperhaps (arguably) the most "organized" of stellar systemsas an example of astrophysical systems that would have to be distinguished from an extraterrestrial intelligence message by such information theoretic filters. We also look at a message transmitted from Earth (Arecibo Observatory) that contains a lot of meaning but little information in the mathematical sense we define it here. We conclude that the study of non-human communication systems on our own planet can make a valuable contribution to the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence by providing quantitative general measures of communicative complexity. Studying the complex communication systems of other intelligent species on our own planet may also be one of the best ways to deprovincialize our thinking about extraterrestrial communication systems in general.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)406-417
Number of pages12
JournalActa Astronautica
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Feb 2011


  • Animal communication
  • Information theory
  • SETI
  • Zipf's Law

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering


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