I study animal communication to understand what makes human language unique and how it evolved. I combine biological observations and experiments on the field to theoretical linguistic work.

You can find my CV here.

My research

I completed my master in Animal and Human Behaviour (Master CAH) at the University of Rennes I (France) in 2014. My master thesis, under the supervision of Lemasson A. and Estrada A., focussed on the flexibility of the howling bouts and the social organization during the howling events in wild black howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra) in the National Park of Palenque, Mexico.

From 2014 to 2018, I did my PhD at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland) under the supervision of Zuberbühler K. and Cäsar C. (thesis here). I studied the semantics of alarm sequences of a wild New World primate, the black-fronted titi monkey Callicebus nigrifrons, at the Santuário do Caraça, Brazil. I showed that titi monkeys emit similar sequences of calls in predatory and non-predatory contexts, and that the acoustic and temporal structure of the sequences is context-dependent (Berthet et al., 2018). I also showed that titi monkey alarm sequences convey information about the predator type and location, using a probabilistic system relying on the proportion of vocal units within the sequences that encodes graded information (Berthet et al., 2019). Overall, this work suggests that titi monkeys have a very unique communication system, and that it is crucial to extend the study of animal communication beyond the current classic framework to encompass communicative capacities that are not commonly found in humans, in order to better grasp the diversity of systems of other species and understand what makes human language unique.

Since 2018, I am doing a post-doc at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (France) under the supervision of Schlenker P. and Chemla E. on animal linguistics. I use a linguistic approach to study the semantics of animal communication, which allows the drawing of accurate predictions about meaning of general alarm calls (Dezecache and Berthet, 2018) and alarm calls of titi monkeys (Commier and Berthet, 2018; Berthet et al, 2019). I also study linguistic capacities of captive species such as medical-trained sea lions (Otaria flavescens and Arctocephalus australis) by conducting experiments - cancelled because of Covid-19. I mentor several master students working on the semantics and syntax of titi monkeys' call sequences or the phylogeny of gull calls (Laridae sp). Finally, I collaborate with linguists and biologists to develop the emergent field of animal linguistics and train researchers interested in this approach. This work led, among other things, to the creation of a one-day workshop at the ENS in 2019 and of a one-week teaching exchange in 2020 - cancelled because of Covid-19.

I also collaborate with biologists (primatologists, ecologists, geneticists) to collect extensive and reliable long-term data on titi monkeys at the Santuário do Caraça. The aim of this project is to better understand this species' ecology (e.g. by conducting genetic analyses to understand the dynamics of the population) and the threats that it is facing. I have been awarded a grant by Global Wildlife Conservation’s Primate Action Fund and the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation to investigate the impact of the 2016-2019 yellow fever crisis on this population of titi monkeys.

Finally, I take part in several projects that aim to promote open science and facilitate collaborations between researchers. I am part of a network of researchers creating an extension of the current Databrary platform to easily share animal data (videos, audio files, excel sheets etc.). I am also involved in the creation of the Atlas of Comparative Cognition.

My projects for the upcoming years are to:

-understand how and to what extend emotional communication can convey meaning in animals

-understand how pragmatics and lexical meaning can work together to convey meaning

-refine our understanding of probabilistic meanings and search for this capacity in other species

-investigate deeper the linguistic capacities of a larger set of species

-develop and run collaborative projects on ecology and ethology of titi monkeys (and other primates on site)

-develop the field of animal linguistics, provide solid theoretical pillars and enhance collaborations between linguists and biologists

  • Berthet M., Zuberbühler K. (2020) “Alarm Calling” In: Shackelford T., Weekes-Shackelford V. (eds) Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Springer, Cham, doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6, PDF

  • Berthet M., Benjumea J., Millet J., Cäsar C., Zuberbühler K., Dunbar E. (2019, December) “Animal linguistics and the puzzle of titi monkeys alarm sequences” Conference proceeding, presented at the 22nd Amsterdam Colloquium, Amsterdam, Netherlands, PDF

  • Souza-Alves J.P., Mourthe I., Hilário R.R., Acero-Murcia A.C., Adret P., Aquino R., Berthet M., et al. (2019) “Terrestrial behavior in titi monkeys (Callicebus, Cheracebus and Plecturocebus): Potential correlates, patterns and differences between genera”, International Journal of Primatology, doi: 10.1007/s10764-019-00105-x, PDF

  • Berthet M., Mesbahi G., Pajot A., Cäsar C., Neumann C., Zuberbühler K. (2019) “Titi monkeys combine alarm calls to create probabilistic meaning”, Science Advances, 5: eaav3991, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aav3991, PDF

  • Commier S. & Berthet M. (2019) “Commentary: Titi semantics: context and meaning in Titi monkey call sequences”, Frontiers in Psychology, 10:512, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00512, PDF

  • Dezecache G. & Berthet M. (2018) “Working hypotheses on the meaning of general alarm calls”, Animal Behaviour, 142:113-118, doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2018.06.008, PDF

  • Berthet M. (2018) “Semantic content in titi monkey alarm call sequences” (Doctorate dissertation) University of Neuchâtel, Neuchâtel, Switzerland, PDF

  • Berthet M., Neumann C., Mesbahi G., Cäsar C., Zuberbühler K. (2018) “Contextual encoding in titi monkey alarm call sequences“, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 72:8, doi: 10.1007/s00265-017-2424-z, PDF

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