Animal Communication

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While it is customary to think of humans as being unique among life forms, humans have a number of basic characteristics in common with other animals. Similar to other animals, humans are "open systems." Open systems are entities that are able to function and survive through ongoing exchanges with their environment. James G. Miller (1965) was one of the first scholars to observe that there are two general ways in which these systems interact with their environment. One involves a give-and-take of matter, and the other involves a give-and-take of information. The first process consists of an intake of food and oxygen, the processing of these materials for energy, and finally an outflow of wastes and carbon dioxide. The second activity involves attending to and acting on information. This second process can be termed "communication."

Viewed in this way, communication is one of the two basic processes of all living—human and animal—systems. Communication is the critical life process through which animals and humans create, acquire, transform, and use information— in the form of messages to carry out the activities of their lives.

Forms of Animal Communication

Messages take a variety of forms—visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and auditory. Visual messages are particularly important to humans, but they also play a necessary role in the lives of many other animals. Examples of visual messages that are useful in human communication include printed words or illustrations, a smile, a handshake, a tear, a new blue suit, or a stop sign. Movements, gestures, and colors have similar importance for animals. The color of birds and butterflies, the rhythmic light of fireflies, and the movement of head, ears, or tail by primates all serve as valuable sources of information. Types of visual messages include facial displays, movement of the body, spacing and position, dress, and other forms of adornment.

Tactile messages involve touch, bumping, vibration, and other types of physical contact. For humans, tactile messages are important from the time of conception to the end of life. This form of communication is at least as important for many other animals, for whom tactile messages play a role in biological as well as social development. Tactile communication is vital for many animal species in parent-young relations, courtship and intimate relations, social greetings and social interaction, and defense and aggression. Types of tactile messages include touch, vibration, stroking, rubbing, pressure, pain, and temperature-related information.

Olfactory and gustatory messages are chemical messages conveyed by smells and tastes. The technical term for these chemical messages is "pheromones." Pheromones are transported by water or air. Humans, of course, receive these messages by means of receptors that are sensitive to food and water-borne substances ingested by mouth and to air-borne scents that enter the nose. Insects receive these messages through sensors in their antennae, fish receive them through odor-sensitive cells on the body or in the nose, and vertebrates receive them through the nose.

Auditory messages take the form of sounds produced by speaking, whistling, drumming, or striking a part of the body against an object, the ground, or another portion of the body. Auditory messages can also be created as an extension of human activity, such as the squealing of brakes on a car or the firing of a gun.

In addition to speech by humans and vocalizations by birds, primates, dogs, and various other animals, other auditory messages play an important role in human and animal communication. In the case of humans, auditory signals, such as alarms, are used to alert and to warn, and more complex auditory forms of communication, such as music, are also important.

As with other forms of communication, auditory messages become significant to animal and human systems when they are detected by receptors and then processed by the brain. In the case of lower-order living systems, the response is generally either one of approach or avoidance; that is, animals may respond to auditory messages either by approaching the source of a message or distancing themselves from it.

Some messages that are of importance to animal and human systems are created intentionally by utterances, written messages, or gestures. Others are not. For a human's tear and an animal's color are examples of messages that are not sent intentionally. Regardless of whether messages are sent intentionally or unintentionally, they can be of equal communicative significance to those who attend to them.

Functions of Animal Communication

Visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and auditory messages serve a variety of essential communication functions for animal and human systems. Some particularly significant categories of these functions include courtship and mating, reproduction, parent-offspring socialization, navigation, self-defense, and territoriality.

Courtship and Mating

Differences between courtship and mating practices are substantial across different animal groups. Nonetheless, communication plays a basic role for all species. Some aspects are straightforward. For example, an essential part of courtship and mating involves the identification of an appropriate mate. Depending on the species, this identification process requires the processing of visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and/or auditory messages. Courtship and mating also involve attracting potential mates, and sometimes persuasion and negotiation, each of which is a communication process.

The specifics of how these communication processes take place vary widely. For example, grasshoppers and crickets use song, moths use pheromones, and fireflies use the visual messages created by their flashing light.


The biological aspects necessary for reproduction can also be understood as a communication process—actually life's most fundamental such process. The reproductive process begins at the moment of conception with the joining of a sperm cell and an egg cell. These cells contain all the information needed for the creation of a new living being that bears a remarkable resemblance to its parents. Thus, through the union of these cells, and the development that unfolds thereafter, genetic communication assures the creation of new offspring and, in a broader sense, the continuity of the species.

Parent-Offspring Relations

Many offspring are quite dependent on adults for survival. For example, the survival of social insects, birds, and mammals depends on interaction with their parents. This interaction may take the form of food providing and physical guidance from one point to another. For many more complex social animals, extended contact between the offspring and adults is critical. In his classical studies, Konrad Lorenz demonstrated how birds and some other animals learn, or imprint, their identity through communication:

One of the most striking as well as pathetically comical instances… concerned an albino peacock in an Australian zoo, the lone survivor of a brood that had succumbed to a spell of bad weather. The peafowl was placed in the only warm room available.… Although the peacock flour ished in these surroundings, the peculiar effect of its reptilian roommates on the bird became apparent not long after it had attained sexual maturity and grown its first train: Beginning then and forever after, the peacock displayed his magnificent plumes in the famous "wheel" position only to giant tortoises, eagerly if vainly courting these reptiles while ignoring even the most handsome peahens with which the zoo supplied him [Simon, 1977, p. 23].

This observation illustrates the fact that communication, in addition to providing support and instruction necessary for survival, can, in some cases, even provide the basic identity of the offspring.


The term "navigation" refers to an animal's goal-directed movement through space. Whether the intention is to locate food, avoid an enemy, follow a colleague, or arrive at a particular destination, the activity involves the processing of messages of one form or another. Again, the ways in which these processes take place varies greatly from one species to another. Humans make extensive use of visual messages. Ants find their way by following an odor trail put in place by other ants.

Some animals navigate using echolocation, whereby they send out auditory signals and then guide themselves by processing information that comes from the echoes that are created as the signals bounce off nearby objects. Among bats, these communication skills are so finely tuned that a bat can pass between two black silk threads placed less than a foot apart without colliding with the threads. Dolphins also use echolocation for navigation; they transmit clicking messages through their forehead and receive and "interpret" returning messages through their jaw and throat.

A most amazing navigational communication process is that used by social bees. Researcher Karl von Frisch (1971) found that when a worker bee identifies a desirable food source, it announces the discovery to other bees in the hive by performing a kind of dance. The distance to the food is conveyed by a rhythmic tail wagging, and the direction of the food is indicated by the path traveled by the bee as it performs its dance routine. If the dance points upward, the food lies in the direction of the sun. If the dance runs 90 degrees to the left of the sun, the food is 90 degrees to the left of the sun, and so on.


The way in which animals defend themselves also frequently involves communication. For example, when an animal detects the presence of a predator, it reacts by mobilizing itself to flee the situation. Communication is basic to this detection-mobilizing-flight activity. Moreover, the departure of the animal may well become a message to other animals nearby—and to the predator—who may all respond based on the messages that they detect and process.

The communication dynamics associated with self-defense among humans are quite complex. Humans react to the sense that they are physically threatened, but they also react when they believe they are symbolically or psychologically threatened. The detecting-mobilizing-reacting process that occurs in response to events such as criticism, a failing grade, or rejection by a friend or romantic interest involves communication. These communication dynamics can then trigger communication responses in others who witness the initial detecting-mobilizing-reacting process.


Communication can also play a role in establishing and maintaining home territories. Many animals—humans among them—become attracted to particular places and spaces where they were born, spent their early years, or mated. This attachment also leads to a desire to mark, maintain, and sometimes even defend the territory against intruders. Communication is a process through which territories are marked, and it is also the means by which animals detect and respond to invasions.

Birds provide one of the best examples of the importance of territoriality and the way in which territories are defined, maintained, and defended. Some birds take possession of an area, a hedge, or a portion of a meadow. Once this has occurred, male birds go to great efforts of using songs to keep out other males. Some birds actually create songs with two distinct forms. They use one song to maintain communication with their partners, and they use another version to define and display their territory. Obviously, humans also go to great efforts to define and defend their territories— homes, neighborhoods, communities, or countries against "outsiders."

Some animals, humans among them, establish temporary or transitory territories. Examples are provided by fish and birds that travel or rest in groups. Temporary personal space is also a major issue for humans. Individuals, for example, claim temporary space at the beach by using towels and other miscellaneous items as messages to others that the space is already taken. Newspapers or a folded coat on an empty seat on a bus or in the movie theater similarly serve as messages about spaces being claimed. Perhaps most sacred is the "bubble" of personal space that exists around individuals. When this space is violated by someone who is standing or sitting "too close" to an individual, it results in discomfort and, generally, a physical response in which the individual moves away in a direction that reclaims the amount of space to which he or she feels entitled.


Communication plays a major role in the most fundamental life processes of animals. This perspective provides a reminder that communication is one of the two means through which all animals adapt to and survive in their environment. Communication takes many forms and serves a variety of functions, but amid all this diversity, there is still a good deal of commonality in terms of the basic communication dynamics and the functions they serve for living systems.

The study of animal communication, beyond being of interest in its own right, helps to further an understanding of human behavior and the role communication plays in human affairs more generally. It provides a source of reflection on human behavior and activities, and it provides a reminder that humans share a great deal in common with other animals. At the same time, these studies serve to highlight the complexity and special character of human communication, which involves the use of symbols. Symbols are messages that stand for things other than themselves, and their use is fundamental to human communication and human life.

Words are symbols, as are flags, dates on the calendar, dollar bills, and stop lights. Each message serves as a signal for a set of meanings that have been created, taught, and maintained through communication. To illustrate, a flag of a country has no inherent, natural meaning. It is simply a piece of colored cloth. However, through time and use, flags become symbols that are capable of conveying many rich meanings. Using symbols in communication allows humans to have much more flexibility than other animals, whose communication essentially involves signals with far more limited ranges of meaning. At the same time, human symbolic communication is far more complex than animal communication and carries with it possibilities for misunderstanding, error, and misinterpretation.

See also:Nonverbal Communication; Symbols.


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Brent D. Ruben