Quantitative tools for comparing animal communication systems: Information theory applied to bottlenose dolphin whistle repertoires

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


Comparative analysis of nonhuman animal communication systems and their complexity, particularly in comparison to human language, has been generally hampered by both a lack of sufficiently extensive data sets and appropriate analytic tools. Information theory measures provide an important quantitative tool for examining and comparing communication systems across species. In this paper we use the original application of information theory, that of statistical examination of a communication system's structure and organization. As an example of the utility of information theory to the analysis of animal communication systems, we applied a series of information theory statistics to a statistically categorized set of bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, whistle vocalizations. First, we use the first-order entropic relation in a Zipf-type diagram (Zipf 1949, Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort) to illustrate the application of temporal statistics as comparative indicators of repertoire complexity, and as possible predictive indicators of acquisition/learning in animal vocal repertoires. Second, we illustrate the need for more extensive temporal data sets when examining the higher entropic orders, indicative of higher levels of internal informational structure, of such vocalizations, which could begin to allow the statistical reconstruction of repertoire organization. Third, we propose using 'communication capacity' as a measure of the degree of temporal structure and complexity of statistical correlation, represented by the values of entropic order, as an objective tool for interspecies comparison of communication complexity. In doing so, we introduce a new comparative measure, the slope of Shannon entropies, and illustrate how it potentially can be used to compare the organizational complexity of vocal repertoires across a diversity of species. Finally, we illustrate the nature and predictive application of these higher-order entropies using a preliminary sample of dolphin whistle vocalizations. The purpose of this preliminary report is to re-examine the original application of information theory to the field of animal communication, illustrate its potential utility as a comparative tool for examining the internal informational structure of animal vocal repertoires and their development, and discuss its relationship to behavioural ecology and evolutionary theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)409-419
Number of pages11
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Quantitative tools for comparing animal communication systems: Information theory applied to bottlenose dolphin whistle repertoires'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this