Signs from the Landscape

The bio-physical world is full of cues (visual, acoustic, olfactory, electrical, magnetic), that are intercepted as signals for specific goals by organisms. To convert such signals into signs (meaning), a cognitive mechanism is necessarily hypothesized (Hoffmeyer 2005, 2008) (Fig. 8.14).

A signification model based on a triadic Peircean relationship between an object, a sign vehicle (representamen) and an interpretant (Peirce 1955) seems a good candidate (Fig. 8.15). A sign is the product of the association between an object, a sign vehicle, and an interpretant. The interpretant is produced in the mind of the organism and this process is not only limited to humans but can also be extended to other organisms. For a review on the origin and evolution of sign theory see Eco (1975), Nozawa (2000), Sharov (2002), Vehkavaara (2005) and Favareau (2006).

Sign processes reduce the uncertainty to which an organism could be exposed to from the external world and it seems to be an evolutionary short-cut common to the animal and plant realms. When the sign theory is extended to the landscape domain, the individual-based cognitive landscape could be considered a semiotic interface between resources, where organisms function as interpreters.

Every organism, in order to have access to "resources," must interact with the geographical landscape that provides species-specific signals from the spatial configurations of specific objects. Without such (eco-)semiosis, the maintenance of life is impossible, as argued by Hoffmeyer (2005) (Fig. 8.16).

Fig. 8.14 From a geographical (neutral) landscape bio-semiotic processes can extract spatial configurations that have a meaning for a specific function. In this example the geographical landscape is composed of 12 elements that can be aggregated differently producing a I or a T or a 0 accordingly

Fig. 8.15 According to the triadic Peircean representation of signification the eco-field hypothesis can copy this semiotic model. The interpretant is represented by a specific function, the sign vehicle by the spatial configuration meaning-carrier (eco-field) and the object by the specific resource (Farina 2008)




(Sign vehicle)



Perception -> Cognition


Fig. 8.16 The relationship between perception, semiosis, and cognition. The semiotic process is in action across all the interactions of an individual or species with the external world

The integration of the sign theory with the landscape definitively requires that the signals are not linked to a specific object, like a tree or an animal, or to a behavioral process, but that they are the result of the interpretation of different spatial configurations of objects.

Such spatial configurations may be represented by the spatial distribution of trees in a forest, the nectar-dispensing flowers in a meadow, or the extension (e.g. the size of a forest clearing) and shape (e.g. the fractal attribute of a forest margin) of a suitable habitat, but many others could be described. For instance, the woodlark (Lullula arborea) requires a minimum number of clearings inside a forested area to select a nesting territory, and a winding margin is preferred to a straight one by deer during grazing along the forest border.

To support the hypothesis that a sign process is indispensable in animal communication we have to suppose that instinctive or learned templates exist in the animal mind and that such templates are activated when a specific internal function is switched on. This mechanism has been recently described and explained by Farina and Belgrano (2004, 2006) with the eco-field hypothesis: For every (vital) function (foraging, roosting, mating, territorial behavior) that requires an external context (surroundings) to be performed, a spatial arrangement of objects (trees, shrubs, other organisms, predators, food) is actively searched. This configuration functions like an interface to localize the specific resource.

The activated function can be processed after such an arrangement has been found (see Weiss and Papaj 2003). Signals from the landscape are transformed into signs by cognitive processes only when a specific function is active, otherwise such signals are not carriers of meaning and organisms are surrounded by a neutral landscape (sensu, Farina et al. 2005).

Following this reasoning, the eco-field hypothesis can be incorporated into the framework of the sign theory in which a triadic relationship links together the resources (object) with the function (interpretant) by the eco-field (sign vehicle).

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