Methods Animals Communicate with Each Other; Basics

The Different Types of Communication

Communication is present between all animals and, at a microscopic level,  all living cells.  It tends to be species-specific meaning the communication of one species often can only be fully understood by members of the same species; in some respects like people across the world speaking different languages.  Several forms of communication exist which I will broadly introduce throughout the rest of this post.  These are; Vocalisation/ Verbal communication, body language and chemical/ olfactory communication which I imagine the majority of people know little to nothing about.  Alongside this is tactile communication which is where humans/ animals communicate through touch.

 

Most people associate the word communication purely with one type; speech or verbal communication.  Speech is a type of verbal communication used by humans. Whilst speech is widely used between people and towards animals, it plays only a minor role in how non-human animals communicate.

Communication is often similar between species but may be very different

People also use non-verbal communication such as body language.  Body language consists of changes in posture, actions and facial expression.  Most people are adept at reading basic facial expressions however those with neuro-developmental conditions such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder may struggle or unable to read them.

Most animals can read facial expressions amongst their own species but cannot read those of other species which can lead to issues including fighting if two different species are housed together; something still regularly occurring with rabbits and guinea pigs.  Facial expressions between species often do bear some resemblance (though can mean very different things at times) between different species as an artefact of our evolutionary history; as at one point was communicated by Charles Darwin.

The situation between the inability for animals to read the facial expressions of other species is a bit different between dogs and people though.  Our relationship with the domesticated dog and the time we spent together throughout domestication has uniquely lead to many dogs possessing the ability to read our, and especially their owners, facial expression and body language to some degree.  This is one factor leading to the so-called “guilty expressions” that dogs appear to show when they face their owners after performing an inappropriate behaviour (such as emptying the bin or chewing up the sofa); dog’s don’t possess the ability to feel guilt, they are, instead, just displaying this behaviour out of the expectation they are in trouble based upon past experience and their owners body language +/- tone of voice.

Selective breeding may have also lead to those with more traits for this recognition being bred more, thus passing it down to their offspring.  However, the connection between humans and dogs is a very unique one and this recognition of body language is not seen among different species to the same extent.

 

Vocalisation/ Verbal Communication

Though many non-human animals vocalise especially when communicating across long distances (such as warning the rest of their herd of predators), it is usually less commonly displayed than it is between people.

 

Wolves howl to vocally communicate with others

Vocal communication is often thought of as speech but it any noise leaving the mouth of an animal.  No animals have the same complexity to this communication as humans have, even primates, and whilst some parrots appear to talk, they purely mimic the people around them and don’t understand the sounds they produce.

Some animals, especially prey species, remain very quiet such as the rabbit, whereas others have noisy calls and cries such as the dog’s bark and the wolf’s howl (which remains in a few dog breeds).  Some animals have an array of different sounds such as guinea pigs who vocalise a lot with numerous different types.

Whilst other species appear to have developed new vocalisations during domestication.  Wildcats have been observed to purr but generally not to meow.  Meowing is believed to be a vocalisation pattern cats developed, through selective breeding and learning as a kitten, to attract the owner and get them to do what they want them to.  This adaptation demonstrates that an animal’s communication can diversify to meet the situation.

 

Body Language

The most common way animals communicate with both ourselves and others.

A snarl both makes a sound and changes the look of the face to pass a communicate unhappiness to those around

Poor communication or the presence of miscommunication (possibly due to the mixing of two or more species), may cause fights to break out.  Miscommunication is often seen between the animal kingdom and ourselves; chimps for instance, “smile” when afraid.  Humans view chimpanzees as being similar to themselves and see this behaviour as a human smile and believe they are happy when the opposite is true. What we think of as a smiling chimp is one displaying a fear grimace; the chimp is scared and they feel threatened by us smiling at them.

Lop-eared rabbits have reduced body language as they are not able to freely move their ears

Body language can be subtle with just hair standing on end (piloerection) occurring either just in a particular area or over the whole body, or the movement of some whiskers or be more obvious such as a snarling dog.  Whether subtle or more obvious, the animal may be trying to communicate something of true importance and so paying attention to any body language is very important.

 

Body language can also be miscommunicated between animals of the same species.  This may be the case if an animal is, for whatever reason, isn’t adept at interpreting body language such as if they have been isolated from those of their own species.  Another reason, which is seen with dogs in particular, could be from modifications to their body.  Dogs communicate with many different parts of their body, including the position or movement of their ears and tail.  If dogs have their tails docked and/ or their ears cropped the language they can display may be affected and therefore may be misinterpreted.  Those with very long hair may also struggle as the movement of particular parts of their body may not be easily visible to others.

This dog’s hair gets in the way of seeing subtle movements of much of the body and blocks their sight too

Chemical/ Olfactory Communication

Under all different circumstances, each individual cell releases chemicals/ compounds/ hormones to interact with the surrounding cells.  The surrounding cells receive these, often as a signal, allowing the body to react appropriately to the current scenario.

Cat demonstrating the flehman response whereby they ensure pheromones pass to the vomeronasal organ

Along with cells releasing chemicals to act upon other cells, certain areas of the body release chemical signals to send messages to the surrounding animals.

 

Some of these signals may be scents, such as urine helps mark out a territory in dogs due to other dogs smelling it.  Other signals released by one animal may affect other animals but do not a smell to them; these are known as pheromones.  Different pheromones affect animals in different ways. Some calm them down whilst others help them detect when a female animal is in season (“on heat”).

The flehman response of a horse allows them to detect pheromones

Pheromones are usually detected in an organ within the nose (the vomeronasal-organ) where signals are then sent to the brain.  Different animals get pheromones into their Vomeronasal organ through different methods; dogs flick their tongue against part of their mouth whereas others wrinkle their noses up and stretch their necks really long, lifting their heads and noses high in the air.  These are known as the Flehman response.

A tapir demonstrates their flehman response

There are also some chemical signals which are neither a scent or pheromone.  One of these includes a protein released in the milk called Alpha S1-Casein (or variants of that depending on the species).  This calms down infant animals after suckling.  A synthetic version (Alpha- Casazephine, derived from Alpha-S1 casein from cows milk) is now produced as a food supplement to reduce anxiety if used for several days.

 

Cats and dogs both release pheromones, the main ones being Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), and the Feline Facial pheromones. These, amongst others, can help them to both create territories or calm them down which can then also be used synthetically to alter behaviour in different circumstances and are available in different forms.  These will be discussed more in-depth in another post.

Suckling animals receive compounds in their mother’s milk to calm them down

The Round Up.

This is just a basic introduction to the ways in which animals communicate and is nowhere near exhaustive.  This post is just to demonstrate how complex communication is and why it is difficult to completely follow and understand.

 

I will follow this up with further posts looking at different types of communication and how these are carried out in different animals.

Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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