Have you ever wondered how animals communicate amongst themselves? There’s more to it than first meets the eye, in some cases literally. Many animals have developed complex communication, but it’s not quite apparent to the viewing human.
Ready to learn a bit? Let’s go into a brief overview of how animals communicate with each other!
Noises and Vocalizations
When humans think of communication, we usually think of talking.
And animals certainly do talk amongst themselves. They produce a wide variety of noises that convey information.
Many of these are straightforward and common. A purring cat or growling dog, for instance, is easy to interpret. Growling is even cross-species, every animal knows that a growl or a hiss is a warning.
Birds are a great example. Ranging from the complex language of corvids to the singing of finches. Birds communicate danger to each other and call in their mates through a legion of different vocalizations.
Not all vocalizations can be heard by humans either! Rats, for instance, communicate in a frequency above human hearing. These ultrasonic signals make up the bulk of their intraspecies social communication and are imperceptible to the human ear.
Elephants and hippos, on the other hand, communicate through infrasonic sounds. These are too deep for the human ear.
The short of it is this: vocalizations are one of the most common ways for animals to communicate. But it’s not the only way!
One of the most important ways that animals communicate, especially with humans, is through body language.
Most of us have picked up on the usual suspects. Dog’s tails are the prime example. A wagging tail means they’re happy, a raised one shows they’re alert, and an ashamed dog keeps their tail between their legs.
Body language is very important both within and outside of their species. The main way that humans understand it is in threat displays. They’re sometimes obvious, like a cat with a swishing tail and lowered ears before an attack, but not all examples are obvious.
Body language is often harder for a human to read the more removed an animal is from our species. Most people could figure out if a bear is warning you to back off but not everyone is going to pick up on a lizard or bird that’s ready to bite.
For mammals, body language is the second main piece of the puzzle. As it happens, however, it’s not the only method of communicating available.
Scents and Pheromones
As humans, our sense of smell is weak. While we can pick up on the big stuff, we’re not able to pick up on most olfactory communication. Like infrasonic and ultrasonic sounds, they’re just outside of what our senses can pick up.
Many mammals mark their territory, which is a simple form of scent communication. The urine or spray lets other animals know the turf is claimed. Some of these are noxious when fresh, like cat spray, but the lasting mark isn’t easy for us to pick up.
But it goes much, much deeper than that.
Scents and pheromones are one of the main ways hive insects communicate, for instance. While each individual worker isn’t very smart, they can convey vast amounts of communication across the hive or swarm.
It’s an interesting field of study and one that varies widely. Whether it’s claiming territory, attracting mates, or even building an arthropod empire… well, it’s all done by scent.
The Weird Stuff
Our planet is incredibly diverse, and some animals have developed communication methods outside of the norm.
A favorite example are lorikeets. These birds have developed a reputation among parrot keepers for being unpredictably aggressive.
Lorikeets communicate their alertness and willingness to be approached by changing the color of their feathers. A dark lorikeet is ready for some scratches, a bright green one is telling you to back off before you get bit.
Quite a few birds actually use their feather color for communication, in both minor and major ways. Cephalopods, like cuttlefish and octopi, famously use color alteration to communicate as well. Less known is that chameleons talk this way, they don’t actually change color to match the background.
If you really want to get weird, however, you have to take into account electric communication. A wide variety of fish can communicate using electricity, they have special organs which can “read” the fields around them.
Strongly electric fish, like the electric eel, communicate this way as well although they’re more famous for stunning prey with their electric field.
Other animals can do some very strange things with their communication. Elephants, for instance, can communicate over miles through ground vibrations. Whales release calls that are imperceptible and can be heard hundreds of miles away.
The truth is that we seem to have barely scratched the surface on the depth of animal communication. There remains a lot to be learned, especially in realms outside of a human’s normal senses.
Making Sense of Nature
Animals have varied and complex methods of communication, and it’s a never-ending field of study. Whether they’re making noise, positioning their body, or going beyond what we can perceive… well, it’s all game for the animal kingdom.
It’s something to think about the next time you’re in nature: thousands of beings communicating in ways seen and unseen!