Understanding how animals ‘talk’ to each other

Posted on 15 February 2018 by

Gemma Carder

in the Animal sentience blog

Non-human animals have developed complex ways of communicating. Here I will share some of these amazing examples and show the importance of appreciating their unique abilities.

Humans have a complex language, but we are not the only species to have developed clever ways of communicating. All animals ranging from the smallest invertebrates, such as insects and crabs, to the largest of mammals, such as whales and monkeys, have evolved unique ways of communicating with their own species and others. 

Bottlenose dolphins recognise each other’s whistles 

Credit Line: CW AZORES/Justin Hart

Like all cetaceans, dolphins have complex communication methods. For example, bottlenose dolphins have developed distinct whistles. It has been found that they include information in their whistles, allowing them to recognise each other’s whistles as well as tell them apart (Janik et al., 2006).  

Amongst non-human primates Vervet monkeys have been shown to have distinct calls with different meanings, including specific calls for each of their top predators (leopards, eagles and pythons) (Seyfarth et al., 1990). These calls allow individuals to not only alert other members of the group about danger, but also to understand what the exact threat is. 

Chemical signals help fish communicate 

In some species calls or sounds are not important in communication. Chemical signals, body language and/or colour may be the primary way of communicating. For instance, chemical signals play a large role in fish communication. They are important in territorial marking, species, sex and individual recognition. Chemical signals also play a role in courtship, and parent-young relations (van der Sluijs et al.,2010).  

Amongst invertebrates, jumbo flying squid communicate by changing their skin colour, they speak to each other using amazing displays of flashing colours and have been seen to change the colour of their whole bodies from red to white and then back again (Rosen et al., 2015). 

Is training animals to mimic us really that interesting? 

Learning how animals communicate is truly fascinating, and it can also be hugely important when working to improve the welfare of pets, farm animals and wildlife. For example, understanding specific calls or sounds can help vets and owners assess an animal’s well-being and make any necessary changes.  

A recent news story highlighted how a captive killer whale called Wikie, had been trained to copy or mimic human speech and say words such as ‘hello’ and ‘Amy’. Some have said that this demonstrates amazing communication skills. But the mimicry skills of killer whales and other species is already well known: wild killer whales, for example, have been observed to copy the calls of dolphins.  

Other species such as male song birds copy the songs of other males and such behaviour often has advantages. For example in song birds, having a large song repertoire increases chances of finding a mate (Kelley and Healy, 2011). 

Understand how animals communicate rather than train them 

In the case of Wikie, he has been trained in captivity to perform unnatural behaviours. There is a great deal of research on wild killer whales, demonstrating their complex behaviour and communication styles. It has been found that killer whales have unique ways of speaking within their pods, representing a culture (Deecke et al., 1999). In my opinion, understanding how animals communicate, rather than training them to perform tricks or copy our language, is far more important and interesting. We need to be careful not to make animals act like humans, but appreciate them for what they are, and acknowledge the different behaviours and communication styles they have. 

If you would like to hear more about our Wildlife. Not Entertainers Campaign you can learn more here.  

Further reading  

Janik, V. M., Sayigh, L. S., & Wells, R. S. (2006). Signature whistle shape conveys identity information to bottlenose dolphins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(21), 8293-8297. 

Van der Sluijs, I., Gray, S. M., Amorim, M. C. P., Barber, I., Candolin, U., Hendry, A. P., ... & Wong, B. B. (2011). Communication in troubled waters: responses of fish communication systems to changing environments. Evolutionary Ecology, 25(3), 623-640. 

Seyfarth, R., & Cheney, D. (1990). The assessment by vervet monkeys of their own and another species' alarm calls. Animal Behaviour, 40(4), 754-764. 

Rosen, H., Gilly, W., Bell, L., Abernathy, K., & Marshall, G. (2015). Chromogenic behaviors of the Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) studied in situ with an animal-borne video package. Journal of Experimental Biology, 218(2), 265-275. 

Kelley, L. A., & Healy, S. D. (2011). Vocal mimicry. Current Biology, 21(1), R9-R10. 

Deecke, V. B., Ford, J. K., & Spong, P. (2000). Dialect change in resident killer whales: implications for vocal learning and cultural transmission. Animal behaviour, 60(5), 629-638. 

Read our interview on the Global Animal Network with Naomi Rose, Marine Mammal Scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington about her work on the Whale Sanctuary Project.  

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