ZOO-ology column: Animals communicate in variety of ways

By Judie Farnsworth
Dec. 9, 2012 at 6:09 a.m.
Updated Dec. 10, 2012 at 6:10 a.m.

Prairie dogs

Prairie dogs

You're no doubt familiar with the sounds and body languages of your pets and familiar woodland animals: the seasonal serenades of birds, the croak of a frog an animal's attention to scents.

Whether a squeaker, rumbler, hisser, warbler, smacker or stinker - it's only the tip of the iceberg. It seems there are a lot of creatures out there with a lot to say and in pretty intriguing ways.

Zoosemiotics is the fascinating study of communication in animals. The word was coined in a research program initiated by Thomas A. Sebeok in the 1960s. Communication is considered to be any behavior of one animal that has an effect on the behavior of another animal. It might be in the form of scent, sound, sight, touch or combinations of senses. It may be to welcome, attract, fool, threaten or maintain the status quo. Zoosemiotics has broader implications that include the process by which something becomes a sign to something else and how it's coded and transmitted.

Scent is probably the most common means of communication among many species. Insects largely use pheromones (secreted chemical substances) to communicate. The antennae of some male moths are so sensitive that they can detect a fabulous female more than two miles away. Ants use chemical cues to mark their trails for foraging and identify friend or foe.

Vocal and nonvocal sound may seem obvious, but did you know the same species may have a different dialect from region to region? Gorillas seem to have their own slang among groups. A zoo elephant became a perfect imitator of traffic from a nearby highway. A mother elephant may slap her ears to signal her baby. A Texas Zoo alligator roars back when the trash truck roars in. Dolphins develop individual signature whistles and beavers slap their tails on the water surface.

The tropical boubou (also called a bell shrike) is a monogamous bird of South Africa. The male and female sing a specific territorial victory duet and each one has a very distinct part. The triumphant melody is performed from a high perch and carries farther than their usual whistle a happy tune.

Stripe-backed wrens of South America have a highly structured social community. Males and females look alike, but their calls never match. Within specific breeding groups, the females perfectly match their mothers' vocalizationsm and the males' calls are exactly like dads.

Male owls may sing their own version of "Bad" using lower pitched hoots as they attempt to sound bigger and heavier than a challenger. In a darkened world, acoustics are important, but will they fool the ladies?

The vervet monkey has various warning calls, including a specific "there's a snake-in-the-grass" call and posture. Humpback whales and prairie dogs have fantastically complicated communication.

Touch can be an important part of communicating. Our habit of shaking hands may seem strange to some monkeys that put their hand in the mouth of the monkey being greeted. The other monkey then repeats the greeting. It may be a sign of trust or maybe proof that monkeys and good hygiene are not necessarily synonymous.

Zoosemiotics is a huge study. My hope is that you will be curious enough to read further. I encourage you to look online at The Animal Communication Project for starters - it's terrific.


Zoosemiotics - Biology Online

Zoosemiotics and animal representations



Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.



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