My dog was barking at my cat earlier today, and although the cat was responding with his best impression, it was clear they weren’t speaking the same language. However, the dog knew that the cat was not in the mood to play, so I wondered how animals communicate other than just using sound. By swishing his tail from side to side, the dog knew that the cat was not to be messed with.
There are four ways that animals communicate: Visually, such as the in the tail of a dog or cat, through sound, through tactile communication, including licking, nuzzling, and nibbling, and using chemicals such as pheromones.
Humans have perhaps the most complex form of sound communication of any species. According to the Global Language Monitor, English comprises over 1 million different words. Speech is a form of sound communication, but we can also communicate using visual and tactile behaviors such as sign language, waving, or shaking hands. Other animal species cannot use speech like us, but they have some fantastic ways of communicating.
Why Communication Is Important
Before we dive into the weird and wonderful world of animal communication, we should first understand why communication is essential for animals.
Without any form of communication, animals cannot infer how they are feeling, what they want, or even if there is danger nearby. The simplest forms of communication allow animals to alert potential threats or warn other animals away from their territory.
Communication is also key to successful courtship and reproduction. A male cannot successfully attract a female without a way to communicate his strengths. A mother cannot bond with or rear her young without some form of communicative sound or behavior.
Even chemical or scent communication can make the difference between confusion and safety. Animals can use pheromones to defend themselves or to attract a mate.
When it comes to continuity across species, visual and sound communication are the most common but not necessarily used in the same way.
Body language is universal among many species. Dogs and cats both use similar body language to display fear or dominance. Animals such as wolves and coyotes live in groups and use body language to establish a pack hierarchy and strengthen bonds between pack members.
The tail is vital in communication for canid species such as dogs and wolves. How the tail is held and how it moves can signal many different things. An erect, stiff tail signals dominance or interest, whereas a loose, wagging tail is used during play or grooming interactions.
Cats will flick their tails quickly from side to side when they feel irritated or threatened. They will also use eye contact to communicate their intentions. Prolonged eye contact is considered a warning or threat. To signal a greeting, cats will squint or slow blink at one another. This prevents confusion during meetings and potential fights over territory.
Rabbits and hares will use movements such as a leg thump or darting to alert other group members to potential danger. Male rabbits also flash the white underside of their tail to attract the attention of a female. Nursing mothers may also use this behavior to signal to their young when they are away from the safety of the burrow.
Bees will use visual communication to inform colony members of nectar sources. Known as the waggle dance, a bee will perform a series of circular or figure-eight movements and body waggles to tell other bees the location of the nectar. This behavior also involves chemical communication (pheromones) and sound (buzzing and tapping).
Almost all bird species use some form of dance during courtship. This can involve head-bopping, synchronized turning, and wing flapping. Males may also bring the female a gift such as a flower or a rock. The male will build a nest to impress a prospective mate in some bird species. If she approves, she will enter the nest and may even add to it with mosses, feathers, or animal hair.
Surprisingly, it is marine creatures that utilize sound most effectively. Found off the coast of California, the 8-inch mantis shrimp produce synchronized rumbles to communicate with one another. Researchers from Miami university used specialized equipment to record these vocalizations and determined they were used during courtship and to defend territories.
Sounds carry much further in water than in air, so it makes sense that sound would be necessary for marine animals. Dolphins are famous for having a complex vocabulary of sounds. They can produce various clicks and whistles, even giving each other names just like humans do.
In 2019, a study published in Nature Communications found that Mexican blind cavefish, also known as blind cave tetra, produce several different forms of vocalization, such as clicks and rumbles. They noted when a group of fish was introduced to a new environment, sound production increased at a greater rate than that of a single fish or a pair.
Acoustic communication is vital for sightless fish as they cannot see their surroundings or use body language to communicate. Sound forms an integral part of their daily life, courtship rituals, and defense of territories.
We have all heard bird songs. Every bird species produce different songs depending on what they are trying to communicate. Sharp shrill songs are typically reserved as an alert for danger, and some species even have different calls for airborne and land-based predators. In contrast, sweet or melodic songs are used during courtship. Birds also use songs to establish their territory. These songs are used more frequently by males as a warning to others.
Tactile communication is the use of touch to send messages between animals. Insects are the most prolific users of tactile communication. Ants, for instance, will tap the antennae of another ant, which researchers believe is in response to food requirements, either to eat or to move within the nest. This behavior could also be involved in nestmate identification.
Many species use tactile communication during courtship. This typically involves males fighting one another, with the strongest male winning the right to mate with nearby females. This is observed during moose rutting season and with rabbits and hares. During the breeding season, males can be seen boxing to establish dominance and breeding rights.
Going back to the blind cave tetra or Mexican blind cavefish, they are unusual animals because they do not have functioning eyes. Due to their habitat, they do not require vision to survive. These unique fish are native to the US states of Texas and New Mexico and the South American countries of Mexico and Guatemala.
They inhabit dark or pitch-black cave systems where eyesight would be useless. Instead, they use suction to communicate and navigate their surroundings. They open and close their mouths to create a suction effect that works like echolocation—the water current changes when it hits an obstacle such as a rocky cave wall or another fish. The animal can sense this and easily avoid any obstruction.
A study conducted in 2019, as mentioned above, also uncovered six distinct sound types that these fish use to communicate with one another.
Pheromones are the most commonly used in insect, amphibian and reptilian communication. There are 50 different snake species in the United States alone, all of which use chemical communication in some form. The downside is that snakes cannot communicate cross-species via pheromones. For instance, a garter snake could not communicate with a python using chemical signals.
Snakes produce pheromones throughout their life, and the pheromones change as the snake ages. A snake can identify if another snake is male or female and if that snake is sexually activity by investigating the pheromones that snake left behind.
Jacobson’s or vomeronasal organ is used to detect and respond to pheromones. The organ is located in the snake’s head, and they use its tongue to catch scent particles from the air. These mix with saliva and other fluids and pass through ducts in the snake’s mouth to reach the vomeronasal organ. This is where the pheromones are investigated, and signals are then sent to the brain.
Moths use chemical communication to attract and find mates. A female moth will release reproductive pheromones as she flies. The wind will create pockets of pheromones separated by pockets of clean air.
A male moth will detect a pocket of pheromones and begin flying upwind, searching for the female. If he loses the pheromone trail, he will start flying in a side-to-side motion until he finds another air pocket containing the female’s pheromones. Each time this happens, he flies further upwind, eventually locating the female. At this point, the male recognizes her as the originator of the pheromone and knows she is receptive to mating.
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