There are four main ways animals can communicate with other members of their species and even with other species. Being able to warn a predator is undoubtedly a handy advantage, and one of the easiest ways to do this is using visual communication.
Animals use visual communication to greet other animals. Without visual communication, more fights would break out between animals as they wouldn’t be able to signify their intentions. Reacting to danger, such as running or flying away, is excellent for alerting others. Elaborate dances are used to aid in the courtship of many animal species.
Visual communication is often the most common in the animal kingdom when it comes to signaling intent. Let’s find out why.
What Is Visual Communication?
Visual communication uses body language or physical displays used to signal intent. Since animals cannot talk the same way we can, body language is often the most effective way of communicating.
This could be in simple movement, tail display, facial expressions, or body posturing. Some visual communication cues can be understood across different species, such as between predator and prey or two prey species.
The animal creating the signal is the sender, and the signal is directed to the receiver. The receiver often bases their decision-making on signals they receive. For instance, a rabbit may see movement ahead but be unsure of the best response. Another rabbit nearby may flash the white underside of its tail to signal danger. The rabbit receiving this signal understands a possible threat and can choose to flee.
Bees use a system of body movements called a waggle dance to tell other colony members where the best sources of nectar are. The bee will dance in either a circle or a figure of eight patterns. Circles denote nectar sources close to the nest, whereas a figure of eight is used for sources further away.
The dance will be more intricate when the nectar source is of higher quality, and the movements tell the other bees how to find their way.
Visual Communication For Danger
This is most often seen in prey animals but may also be observed in predatory species. A physical response to danger sometimes called an alarm signal, warns other group members of a potential threat.
Most furry mammals, including rabbits, hares, and squirrels, have a white underside to their tail. In times of danger, the animal will flash their tail to signal to other nearby animals. This happens both consciously and as a by-product of the animal’s response.
An animal will remain still while repeatedly flicking its tail to flash the white hairs in the first case. This is a warning to their group to flee or find a safe hiding place. The animal here is choosing to give this signal.
An animal can also give this signal without choosing. When a prey animal runs away, zigzags, or jumps, the movement of its body naturally causes its tail to twitch. This creates the same flashing signal of white tail hair that alerts other animals to potential danger.
This is a secondary signal. The primary signal is seeing the animal running away, which would prompt an immediate response from other animals, even if they don’t see the danger.
This can also be seen in birds. When one bird senses danger and flies away, it can cause the entire flock to take off as one group. The other birds are simply responding to the visual signal of the first bird fleeing.
Visual Communication For Greeting
Visual greeting signals are seen daily in both dogs and cats. Whether you are a dog person or a cat lover, the behaviors tend to be universal.
Let’s start with dogs. When a dog greets an unknown dog for the first time, they both engage in subtle posturing to determine each other’s dominance. This use of body language eliminates the risk of a fight and possible injury. The interaction quickly switches from inquiry to play.
Dogs ask another to play by performing what is known as a play bow. The dog lowers his front legs and head to the ground while his rear end remains upright. If the receiver of this signal wishes to play, they will mirror the play bow, and a game of chase or wrestling will follow.
There are similar ritualistic behaviors seen in cats. When cats wish to greet one another, they will approach head-on but slightly out of line. At the same time, they will squint or slow blink to show they do not mean any harm.
Most cats will return the behavior, but occasionally in tomcats, an argument may follow before any acceptance of greeting is reached. You may well have heard the guttered cries of cats in your neighborhood. A low growl, followed by high-pitched screeching.
This is meant as a warning, with the idea that one cat will usually back down. A brief scuffle may ensue on rare occasions, but this does not last more than a few seconds.
If two cats are comfortable in one another’s company, they too will perform play behaviors similar to those seen in dogs.
Dogs and cats both also use the same body language as a threat or show of frustration. When either animal feels threatened or scared, the hairs along the spine will stand on end. The tail hair will also stand erect in cats, making the tail appear much larger and bushier.
These physical signals are all done to prevent a physical altercation. Animals only ever fight as a last resort, as the likelihood is that both parties will end up injured. This is why visual communication is so important.
Visual Communication For Courtship
Gift-giving is often used to attract a mate. This is the same across most classes, including mammals, birds, and insects. Male spiders of many species will catch food and offer it to females as part of their courtship ritual. If the female accepts the food, then she is also taking the male as her mating partner. If she refuses the male, he usually makes a dash for it before he becomes dinner.
Interestingly, research has shown that some male spiders use fake gifts as a ruse to get close to the female. This is often a food item the male has already eaten, and he will wrap the remains in a silk ball. Other males will dress their gifts in several layers of silk to make the gift appear bigger. They will also attempt to mate with the female while she investigates the gift, giving him time to get away when she realizes it is of poor quality.
Bird species like the common raven also use gift-giving for bonding and courtship. A raven will select a stone, clump of moss or twigs to bring to a potential mate, much like humans give gifts to one another. If the suitor accepts the gifts, then the courtship progresses.
While we generally think of peafowl as an Asian species, there is peafowl that is now wild in some areas of the southern United States. These birds are the descendants of pet birds who have escaped captivity. Peafowl are surprisingly hardy birds and can be seen living wild in rural areas of California, Florida, and Hawaii, where the climate is warm and humid.
Peafowl is one of the most famous visual species. The peacocks (males) are adorned with giant, vibrantly colored tails that open up like a fan. The tail feathers have bright green plumage, with turquoise blue and lemon yellow markings similar to eyes.
There is also an albino peafowl that is brilliant white with tails that appear fluffy along the out edges. A male will attract a female by opening his tail and shaking or vibrating. This catches the female’s attention and the feathers moving against each other create a soft rustling sound.
The idea is that the larger and brighter the tail is, the more attractive the male will be to potential mates. Those males with smaller tails or thinner feathers tend to be rejected more often than males with large, bright tails.
Visual communication is key to a happy and relaxed life for the tiniest insects to the largest mammals. Optical signals help bring harmony to family groups and establish territories without a single bite or scratch. No species can rely solely on visual communication, but it is a vital part of animal language.
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Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.