Scratching beneath the surface: intentionality in great ape signal production

Kirsty E. Graham*, Claudia Wilke, Nicole J. Lahiff, Katie E. Slocombe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Despite important similarities having been found between human and animal communication systems, surprisingly little research effort has focussed on whether the cognitive mechanisms underpinning these behaviours are also similar. In particular, it is highly debated whether signal production is the result of reflexive processes, or can be characterized as intentional. Here, we critically evaluate the criteria that are used to identify signals produced with different degrees of intentionality, and discuss recent attempts to apply these criteria to the vocal, gestural and multimodal communicative signals of great apes and more distantly related species. Finally, we outline the necessary research tools, such as physiologically validated measures of arousal, and empirical evidence that we believe would propel this debate forward and help unravel the evolutionary origins of human intentional communication. This article is part of the theme issue ‘What can animal communication teach us about human language?’

Original languageEnglish
Article number20180403
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1789
Early online date18 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jan 2020


  • Gestures
  • Intentional communication
  • Language evolution
  • Signal production
  • Vocalizations


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