We know that only a small percentage of what we understand comes from words. Tone, body language and rhythm all come together to help communicate a message, whether we’re conscious of them or not.
Animals also use multiple forms of communication to express how they’re feeling, what they want, or if there’s danger nearby. Communication is also key to successful courtship and reproduction.
Here are a few of our favorite fascinating ways that animals communicate with each other:
In 1973, Karl Von Frisch won the Nobel Prize partly for his work on bee communication. Frisch observed bees “waggling” inside their hives. The bees used this dance-like movement to inform other bees of the direction and distance to important food sources.
Frisch’s famous study found that, when a bee discovered a food source, it would head to the hive and perform a dance. During the dance, other bees touched its abdomen. This communicated to the other bees where find the food without having to be shown. The direction and speed of the dance indicated specific geolocation details.
Bees aren’t the only tiny dancers in the animal kingdom. The peacock spider, for example, drums out a kicking beat with his legs. When he has the attention of nearby lady spiders, he does a dance with the hope of impressing a special someone. If successful, the female will start to dance in return.
Similarly, when Clark’s grebes, a species of North American waterbird, want to attract a mate, they perform a magnificent dance. The male and female grebes attempt to synchronize their movements. If and when they do sync up, they then run on water together for up to 20 seconds.
But perhaps the most famous bird dancers are birds-of-paradise, most of which are found in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and eastern Australia. A male six-plumed bird-of-paradise will first tidy up his home to make it more presentable. Then, he’ll perform an intricate courtship display, waltzing around the area while bobbing his head and showing off his colorful feathers to woo potential romantic partners. While the steps of these seductive dances may seem a little strange to us, let’s be honest—it’s not that different from the average single person’s night out at a club hoping to attract someone to mate with!
2. Color and Light
Many cephalopods change color to communicate. Squid and cuttlefish use this ability to attract mates or to indicate that they’re already spoken for. But it’s also a technique used to fend off rivals and potential predators. When one squid changes color to threaten another, it can initiate a vividly colorful stand-off. The two whirl their way through chromatic displays until one decides to back off. Sometimes they can even multitask, displaying a pleasing, attractive color on one side and a more threatening color on the other!
Octopuses, on the other hand, use their color-changing abilities more for camouflage and defensive purposes. If an octopus suddenly turns white with black only around their eyes, it communicates that they feel threatened and could possibly attack.
As with dance, color changing is still relatively understandable. We humans also change color as a form of communication. Think about the last time you blushed beet red from embarrassment. Or imagine someone going pale with fear when scared.
As for light, the mantis shrimp has some of the most impressively complex color receptors in the world. These come in handy when communicating with one another. They use their bodies to communicate, using polarized light that other animals cannot see. This light bounces off spots on their appendages called maxillipeds. They scatter and arrange the light in ways that can convey information only to other mantis shrimp.
3. Infrasound and Ultrasound
African elephants make sounds that are so low they do not strike the human ear as sounds—or anything more than a rumbling vibration. Known as “infrasound” (sounds below 20 hertz, too low for humans to detect), this way of communicating may seem quiet to humans, but researchers gather that one African elephant making an infrasound can be heard by another more than 175 miles away.
And on the other end of the spectrum, we have the tarsier— a tiny, big-eyed primate that communicates at the opposite range of elephants. Tarsiers can emit ultrasound frequencies over 20,000 Hertz that are far too high-pitched for the human ear to detect. It is thought to help them communicate over the jungle noise and out of range of predators, making it ideal for alerting one another of danger.
“African demon mole rat” (Tachyoryctes daemon) is about as metal of a name as a rat could hope to have—and they are quite the headbangers. Spending their lives underground, they communicate by thumping their heads against the tops of their tunnels, sending vibrations through the earth that travel much farther than any other noise could. The pace and intensity of the thumps indicate different meanings to their rodent kin.
You’re probably familiar with electrically charged sea animals like the electric eel, which uses electricity to navigate through murky water, attack prey, and protect itself from predators. But there are also species of electric fish that use electricity as a means of communicating.
Weakly electric fish like the Peters’s elephantnose fish and the black ghost knifefish can generate electric fields up to one volt in wattage. They use these to communicate with other weakly electric fish using their electroreceptors. Once an electroreceptor receives a signal, the fish will interpret the signal frequency and waveforms to deduce what the sender is trying to communicate.
When two of these fish meet, they can tweak their wavelengths to produce similar levels of voltage. Weakly electric fish are currently the only known creatures to carry both electric generators and electroreceptors, making them the only animals on Earth with the ability to communicate through electricity.
But it gets even weirder.
The white rhino uses poop-centric methods of communication. These rhinos create communal defecation sites called middens, and they have no issue meandering up to this giant, ten-foot-wide pile of bio-waste and taking a good, long whiff. The midden acts as a type of rhino message board, as the poop contains all sorts of biological and societal information.
For example, a midden can communicate who rules that specific area. The dominant male rhino will often poop directly in the middle of the midden and kick around his waste, both to spread his smell around the midden and to get it stuck on his feet so that others can recognize the scent wherever he goes. The midden can also indicate which poopers are healthy, which are sick, and even which are ready for mating.
Kicking around poop is one thing, but geckos…
The day gecko of Madagascar absolutely loves the poop of tiny green insects called treehoppers. Treehoppers drill into trees to drink the sap inside, then they excrete a sugary liquid called honeydew. The day gecko will approach the insect and nod its head methodically, and the treehopper responds by shaking around and firing a translucent honeydew poop pellet right into the happy gecko’s mouth. Sort of a nod-activated poop vending machine.
7. “Words,” Whistles, Hums and Growls
We’ve discussed some incredible examples of nonverbal communication, but some animals are masters at verbal communication. Dholes, for example, are Asiatic wild dogs that look like fox-wolves and live in packs of 5 to 12. Unlike their relatives (wolves, jackals, foxes, etc.), dholes whistle to communicate. Each animal commands up to 35 square miles of land, so they rely on sounds that travel well to holler at their canid pals over huge distances.
The dhole’s verbal repertoire includes whistles, clucks, and high-pitched, freaky-sounding shrieks that one would never expect from anything so cute. The disconcerting dhole sounds aren’t just used to say hello—they’re used to coordinate organized attacks on large prey like buffalo and reindeer.
Gorillas aren’t whistlers, but they are notable hummers! Humming is mostly displayed by dominant silverback gorillas as a call to dinner. Through melody, the alpha leader decides on mealtimes and gets his crew to the table—especially the females, who go after musical males. It’s not just a way to indicate that they are enjoying their meal, but it’s also how they express that they would prefer not to be bothered while eating. When they go silent, it’s actually a sign that they’re willing to chat. You can have the chance to observe gorilla communication on our Ultimate Gorilla Safari.
This mealtime music isn’t limited to gorillas. Chimps and bonobos are noisy eaters as well. Scientists can learn a lot about primate social structure based on the most vocal members.
But prairie dogs take the cake when it comes to complexity. They have different “words” they shout to identify what kind of predator is approaching, including a particular sound that means “humans are coming.” Even more impressive, one researcher found that prairie dogs can vary their calls depending on which specific human they saw.
In experiments, the calls would differentiate in remarkable detail based on what color clothing the researchers were wearing, how tall or short they were, how close they were and how fast they were moving. A professor named Con Slobodchikoff has been studying prairie dog communication for more than three decades and confirms that one vocalization can translate into “There’s a tall skinny guy in green a few yards away and he’s sprinting toward us!” This means that prairie dogs possess a level of communication even more sophisticated than that of dolphins or chimps.
To round this section out, here’s another fun fact: Tiny sea horses actually growl to startle predators while they attempt to flee from danger.
The award for the cockiest communicator has to go to the splendid fairy wren of Australia. Fairy wrens are routinely killed for food by butcher birds, who impale their still-living victims on thorn bushes. Given this gruesome threat, it would make sense for fairy wrens to stay under the radar if their archnemesis is in the region, but they weirdly tend to do the exact opposite.
When a nearby butcher bird vocalizes a call, male fairy wrens immediately answer it in a show of bravado for female fairy wrens. Scientists call this phenomenon vocal hitchhiking. When a predator is nearby, the female fairy wrens are at full attention, and the males know they have an active audience for their devil-may-care actions.
The most strategic and manipulative communicator is the caterpillar of the Alcon blue butterfly (Phengaris alcon), which uses the power of song to disguise its true identity and trick others into caring for it. The first segment of the caterpillar’s abdomen has a small lip that it scrapes to make its “song.”
This sounds just like the song that the red ant queen makes—so much so that any red ants within listening distance will carry the caterpillar back to their colony and give it the royal treatment as though it were actually their queen. They will guard the caterpillar with their lives, even against the real queen, exiling or killing her if the caterpillar is convincing enough.
The fiercely territorial female Peruvian warbling antbird uses song to ensure her mate stays faithful. Partnered antbirds belt out powerful duets in perfect harmony to let everybody know that they live there—until a single female antbird comes along. Then, the ambitious male in the couple immediately switches his song to a type of mating call to lure her over.
In response, his jealous female partner begins singing arrhythmically over him and throwing him off pitch. The male then tries to sing over her, and before you know it, they’re in a musical domestic dispute, ensuring the other female isn’t attracted to the otherwise pleasant singing of the male.
This is just a small list of all of the ways that animals have figured out how to communicate. There’s always so much more than meets the eye (or ear!), making traveling into nature with a highly trained guide who knows how to interpret animal behavior well worth it.
Observe animal communication for yourself on one of our wildlife-focused nature tours!