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Animal Communication

“When a male octopus spots a female, his normally grayish body suddenly becomes striped. He swims above the female and begins caressing her with seven of his arms. If she allows this, he will quickly reach toward her and slip his eight arm into her breathing tube. A series of sperm packets moves slowly through a groove in his arm, finally to slip into the mantle cavity of the female… Think about what these words have done. I did not simply remind you of octopuses; in the unlikely event that you ever see one develop stripes, you know what will happen next.”1 Unimportant as some animal behaviors can seem to a casual observer, they can in fact communicate information of vital importance.

“In simple terms, communication is the act of passing or sharing information between individuals. Because we live in a complex society, we depend on communication to help our lives run more smoothly.”2 Also, “communication comes in many forms. All communication involves the use of signals. A signal could be a sound, a look, a motion, or even a written sign.”3 Although we like to believe that we are the only ones on Earth capable of communicating, animals do it too. From pigeons to lions, all animals use some form of communication. Just like humans, animals have also come to learn during the long process of evolution that “the ability to share information with other living things is an important survival tool.”4

According to Chomsky, human language is on a far greater level of sophistication than animal communication. Since he is too great of an authority in the field of linguistics to be argued with, in stead, I will try to show that animal communication does show some complexity, insignificant as it may seem compared to human language, and that animal communication is in fact effective and meaningful.

Some of the main ways of animal communication involve using visuals, chemicals and sounds.

Communication using visuals

Unlike humans, whose visual displays are more often than not very complex and require further inquiry in order to find out what the person is actually implying, animal visual displays are a lot clearer. Namely, unlike people, animals do not have a complex language that would enable them to elaborate on their gestures, so they tend to make them as clear as possible. For example, “when a person cries, he or she may be feeling fear, sadness, anger, or even extreme joy. To find out why a person is crying, you have to ask. Because animals can’t speak the way we do, their visual displays are usually much clearer.”5 Some of the most important visual displays that can be witnessed in the animal world include threat displays and signaling for food.

Threat displays are some of the most important visual displays in the animal world. “An animal uses a threat display when it feels threatened. The threat could come from a member of its own species, or from a different species. A threat display is a warning.”6 For example, when a dog growls and bares its teeth, it is making a threat display.

A threat display should not be mistaken for the “attack mode” of a predator during the hunt. When a cat goes hunting, it stays low, close to the ground, its eyes are wide open and its ears pointed up. On the other hand, when a cat senses that it is in danger, its ears are tilted backwards, its eyes are narrowed and the hair on the tail and back puffs out. Obviously, the cat’s visual display enables us to guess whether it is hunting or afraid of being hunted.

A threat display does not imply provocation either. Namely, most animals will rather avoid conflict than provoke it, with the exception of predators on the hunt. However, even they will avoid a conflict with an animal larger than themselves, unless they are operating in a group and the odds are still in their favor. “In many cases, a threat display can make an animal look tougher than it really is. It’s almost a bluff.”7 Namely, some animals swell up their bodies in order to appear larger and therefore discourage the enemy from attacking. Another good example can be found in the form of “eye-spots” on some types of moths. “For example, the Mexican bulls eye silk moth has two large spots on its wings that seem like simple decorations. Yet, when a predator threatens the moth, the moth brings its wings together so that the spots resemble giant eyes. More often than not, the predator will back off.”8

Another very important visual display that can be witnessed in the animal kingdom is signaling for food. Some species of animals prefer to hunt alone, while other species hunt in groups. Hunting in groups requires very sophisticated communication signals which enable group members to coordinate their attack and make hunting easier instead of getting in each other’s way. Without communication, they would not be able to make the kill and provide food for the group.

Although they are known to usually hunt alone, hawks sometimes hunt in smaller groups in order to catch larger prey. Once they’ve spotted the prey, “the birds will begin to circle and swoop down on the prey from different directions to try to confuse the animal. If the prey is out in the open, the hawks will take turns chasing it until the animal is exhausted. If the prey runs for cover in shrubs and bushes, one or two of the hawks will land on the ground and flap their wings. This “beating” action is designed to flush the prey from its hiding place. When the prey comes out, a circling hawk will pounce on it.”9

Honeybees also work in groups in order to find food. Namely, they send scouts to look for food and once a scout locates a food source, it flies back to the hive, carrying the scent of the food on its legs, which alarms the rest of the bees. Then the scout performs a complex dance in order to “explain” to the rest of the bees where the food source is. The dance is called “waggle-dance” and was interpreted by the Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch. “The waggle dance is done in the shape of a figure eight. The scout bee does the dance along the vertical surface of the honeycomb. The dance has three parts. It starts with a circle on one side and then a straight section in the middle, followed by a circle in the opposite direction on the other side. While the bee is moving along the straight section, she will rapidly shake her abdomen back and forth. This is the “waggle” part of the dance.

It turns out that the direction of the straight part of the dance tells the other bees where the food is. If the food is located in the same direction as the sun, the scout bee will move straight up the honeycomb. If the food is located 30 degrees to the left of the sun, then she will slant the waggle part of the dance so that it is tilted 30 degrees to the left of vertical. If the food is 30 degrees to the right of the sun, then she will waggle 30 degrees to the right of vertical. The distance to the food is shown by how long each cycle of the dance takes place. If the food is close by, say 100 meters or so, then the dance cycle will last less than 2 seconds. If the food is several kilometers away, then the dance is much slower, with each cycle lasting as long as 8 seconds.”10

1 Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1995. HarperPerennial, p. 15

2 Stephen M. Tomacek, Animal Behavior: Animal communication, 2009. Infobase Publishing, p. 7

3 Stephen M. Tomacek, Animal Behavior: Animal communication, 2009. Infobase Publishing, p. 8

4 Stephen M. Tomacek, Animal Behavior: Animal communication, 2009. Infobase Publishing, p. 8

5 Stephen M. Tomacek, Animal Behavior: Animal communication, 2009. Infobase Publishing, p. 19

6 Stephen M. Tomacek, Animal Behavior: Animal communication, 2009. Infobase Publishing, p. 21

7 Stephen M. Tomacek, Animal Behavior: Animal communication, 2009. Infobase Publishing, p. 21

8 Stephen M. Tomacek, Animal Behavior: Animal communication, 2009. Infobase Publishing, p. 22

9 Stephen M. Tomacek, Animal Behavior: Animal communication, 2009. Infobase Publishing, p. 26

10 Stephen M. Tomacek, Animal Behavior: Animal communication, 2009. Infobase Publishing, pp. 27-29


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