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It’s good to talk – the many methods and levels of communication

PhD student speaks about the differing forms of communication for humans and animals – and her experience of returning to university in her late 40s

PhD student speaks about the differing forms of communication for humans and animals – and her experience of returning to university in her late 40s

If you’d asked me thirty years ago what I’d be doing during my 50th year on the planet, I’m fairly sure my answer wouldn’t have been “studying for a PhD”, but here I am at Middlesex University. I wasn’t able to complete my doctorate some years ago for health and personal reasons, but as the Universe/University has given me another shot at it as an (even more) mature student, I’m doing everything in my power to get it finished this time.

I’m studying how some tiny, insect-like animals of the Order Collembola communicate. Most people know them as springtails, except the ones I’m looking at don’t spring. The mechanism that allows this in most springtail species doesn’t function in my creatures.

One of the most important methods of communication in insects and similar creatures is through pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals secreted by an individual, that are then received and interpreted by others. They can act in a similar way to hormones but outside of the body, affecting the behaviour of receiving creatures. These pheromones trigger many different types of social responses including warning and alarm, trails to show where food is and mating signals.

I am investigating aggregation pheromones. These are used by seashore springtails to signal and form clusters before high tide, to shelter from the incoming waters. My research involves determining what the pheromone is made of, and how its signals are transmitted between the individual animals.

Research on communication plays an enormous role in studies of animal behaviour. Attempts to identify and translate the information exchanged in calls and signalling systems of countless animals of all shapes and sizes are continual, and pheromone or chemical communication is just a tiny part of this. Although non-human animals don’t communicate with what most people would consider language, the boundaries seem to increasingly blur as we learn more and more about the different characteristics of animal communication. And human language itself isn’t just about the words used. We use sounds, tone of voice, gestures, pictures, diagrams as part of our inter-personal communication.

During a recent seminar series, we looked at communication in Science; including who’s doing the communicating – and how. Scientists, teachers, publishers, politicians and policy makers, investors and advertisers, film makers and broadcasters, journalists, museums, the public and even bloggers are all communicating with variable levels of fact and fiction. Amongst other things it made me think about how many different types and levels of communication there are, even within my own small experience of the scientific world.

Although these days I’m usually found reading academic papers and writing thesis-type paragraphs, in the past I spent time as a primary school teaching assistant and a research student tutor, so I’ve had some experience of communicating knowledge to non-specialists. My earliest memories of doing this were with my mum during my undergraduate degree, and even while still at school.

My mum was very artistic having trained as a fashion designer but she was the first to admit she didn’t know much about science. Everything was interesting to her though, and I used to love explaining things to her, going through the stages of cell division, drawing diagrams on bits of scrap paper at the kitchen table. I’ve always thought it was the best way to learn something myself too because explaining something to someone else seems to help things stay in my own head. Sitting in the pub with colleagues sketching ideas on beer mats also seems to work in a similar way.

Speaking of sitting in the pub, we humans are pretty social animals and most of us enjoy being in groups, for work as well as social activities. We don’t even need to words to communicate our ideas to each other most of the time. For example, how often do we convey “call me” with a phone near our ear gesture, or “fancy a drink?” by raising an invisible glass to our face? We use many signals to alter the behaviour of others and coordinate it with our own, as do the springtails. Humans also form groups and clusters for protection.

And for that protection to be more than just short-term and physical, maybe making improvements to science communication could help protect us all through improving our understanding and finding solutions to our problems.

Picture shows Anurida maritima aggregating on the water surface Credit: Evan C,

Elise Michele Heinz is a PhD student in the Faculty of Science and Technology.

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