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Humans identify emotions in the voices of all air-breathing vertebrates

Amphibians, reptiles, mammals – all of them communicate via acoustic signals. And humans are able to assess the emotional value of these signals. This has been shown in a new study led by researchers Piera Filippi of the MPI and colleagues at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Ruhr-Universität Bochum.
Humans identify emotions in the voices of all air-breathing vertebrates

© Andrius Pašukonis

The researchers interpreted these findings as evidence that there might be a universal code for the vocal expression and perception of emotions in the animal kingdom. Previous studies had demonstrated that humans are capable of identifying emotions in the voices of different mammals. The new study results, published in the journal “Proceedings of the Royal Society B”, have been expanded to include amphibians and reptiles.

The team headed by Dr Piera Filippi, currently at the University of Aix-Marseille and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, included, amongst others, three academics from Bochum: philosophy scholar Prof Dr Albert Newen, biopsychologist Prof Dr Dr h. c. Onur Güntürkün and assistant professor Dr Sebastian Ocklenburg.

Animal voices for different classes of vertebrates

Participants in the study included 75 individuals whose native language was English, German or Mandarin. They listened to audio recordings of nine different species of land-living vertebrates in the classes mammals, amphibians and reptiles, with the latter including birds and other reptiles.

Participants were able to distinguish between high and low levels of arousal in the acoustic signals of all animal classes. To do so, they mainly relied on frequency-related parameters in the signal.

“The findings suggest that fundamental mechanisms for the acoustic expression of emotions exist across all classes of vertebrates,” conclude the authors. The evolutionary roots of this signal system might be shared by all vocalising vertebrates. This finding goes in the direction of what Charles Darwin suggested more than a century ago, namely that acoustic expressions of emotion can be traced back to our earliest land-dwelling ancestors.

Audio files online

Recordings of low and high arousal calls of different animals can be found online at:


The collaboration between Piera Filippi and the researchers from Bochum was realised thanks to a fellowship that was awarded by the Center for Mind, Brain and Cognitive Evolution in Bochum.

Original publication

Piera Filippi et al.: Humans recognize emotional arousal in vocalizations across all classes of terrestrial vertebrates: Evidence for acoustic universals, in: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2017, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0990

Press contact

Dr Piera Filippi
Brain and Language Research Institute
University of Aix-Marseille, France
and Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
Nijmegen, the Netherlands
Phone: +32 483 180754, +33 7 85026938
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


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