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Signal without language: How animals communicate

By Lauren Wilson Nov. 10, 2022

Simple onomatopoeia like “woof,” “moo” and “meow” may come to mind when thinking of animal communication. In reality, animals’ interactions are far more complex; they utilize intricate combinations of the five senses to convey messages to humans and each other.

Animals’ interactions with each other frequently consist of visual, auditory and tactile cues, which can express emotions, display dominance, signal danger and enable close connections between members of a family or social community. For example, chameleons’ skin changes color to reflect their feelings. National Geographic explains that the lizards’ exterior is composed of nanoscale crystals that reflect light differently depending on the distances between them; when a chameleon is excited or attempting to attract a mate, the crystals spread further apart, reflecting warm light to the outer layer and changing the chameleon’s skin color to a yellow hue.

“Through horseback riding, I have observed that horses stomp their hooves to express anxiety, lick their mouths to show they are relaxed and pin their ears back to communicate that they are feeling threatened or angry at another horse,” Sophomore Anne Bujtas said.

Over time, animals’ physical features and physiological capabilities have evolved, enabling them to protect themselves from predators and communicate effectively during mating. According to the New England Complex Systems Institute, female peacocks are attracted to male peacocks with large, vibrant feathers. As male peacocks with showy feathers are able to attract more peahens, genes for large plumage are passed down. Furthermore, a study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science states that vervet monkeys—a primate species native to Africa—utilize different alarm calls to warn fellow members in their social group of nearby predators. Recordings of signals from an adult male vervet monkey, differing in acoustics, caused the monkeys to either hide under or climb up trees.

During mating rituals, many animals also use stridulation, or the act of producing sound by rubbing together body parts. In their book “Advances in Insect Physiology,” University of Bristol researchers Thomas Neil and Marc Holderied report that grasshoppers rub their hind legs against their forewing, which conveys attraction towards potential mates. Pheromones, chemicals capable of eliciting a sexual or social response in another member of the same species, facilitate important interactions between animals. For instance, queen bees emit them to signal to their workers that they should stop reproducing, as per the American Scientist magazine.

Human-animal symbiosis is also a critical form of communication, but it is not as expansive as interspecies communication due to animals’ limited understanding of the grammatically complex sentences that define human languages. Instead, it is restricted to imitation and following simple commands such as “sit” and “lie down.” Despite this, animals are still capable of communicating their needs in ways that humans can comprehend. For example, a viral video uploaded by the YouTube channel Windy City LIVE showed how a dog named Bunny learned to use a device with buttons that each played a specific phrase to “talk” to his owner. After the owner modeled how to use it for a few weeks, he was able to communicate his emotions and his desire to go outside using the buttons. Meanwhile, people communicate with their domesticated animals instinctively. To reward their pets for positive actions, owners might praise them using a high-pitched voice or offer a treat.

“The way animals communicate with humans without language is similar to how infants communicate with their mothers. Just like how mothers can understand their child’s needs without them voicing them, humans can also understand animals through observing their actions and the sounds they produce,” Senior Arash Mazloumattar said.

Despite differences in communicative abilities, animals and humans can develop an understanding of each other through various types of non-linguistic communication methods. More research on how animals express their emotions may pave the way for deeper connections between people and animals and uncover the evolutionary factors that shaped different animals’ systems of communication.

Suvia Li Art


About the Contributors

Lauren Wilson

staff writer

Lauren Wilson attends Leland High School as a sophomore. She is a staff writer for journalism. Activities she enjoys doing consist of walking her dogs, painting, taking naps, and cheerleading.

Suvia Li

opinions page editor

Suvia Li is a junior at Leland High School and is the Opinions page editor for The Charger Account. In her free time, she likes eating, napping, crocheting, and listening to music.

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