Animal communication is a topic that has fascinated people for many years. Talking animals have been the subject of many a popular film – and a lot of the movies have given them a human voice, but the most famous, the 1967 musical Dr Dolittle, took a more realistic look at the topic.
The memorable song, If We Could Talk to the Animals, suggests that each species has its own language and ways of communicating.
Despite the film’s light-hearted nature, its theory that there are hundreds of different animal languages, which the title character manages to learn, is surprisingly correct. Animals use different ways of communicating and the generally accepted view is that there are four separate means.
Animals use visual, tactile, chemical and auditory communication. Visual includes the physical appearance of the animal, such as when male birds have a bright plumage display to attract a mate. It also includes behaviour, like when a dog wags his tail to show he’s happy.
Tactile communication is when an animal relies on touch to convey a message. Many animals use touch to show affection, such as when primates clean each other to bond, but it can also establish dominance – for example, when a horse kicks another if it feels threatened.
Chemical communication is all about pheromones, when an animal leaves its own scent to mark its territory, attract a mate, or ward off a predator. The best example is when a skunk sprays its signature scent when it feels threatened.
The most widely-used method is sound – such as barking, growling, purring or hissing. Noise is the most fascinating field of study for scientists, who are researching whether we really can talk to the animals.
Sounds are used to attract mates, to express emotions such as happiness or pain and to ward off threats. Examples include a dog barking to warn off a stranger, the screech of the red squirrel to keep intruders at bay, or the unique whistle of the dolphin that can help them to find food.
Just about every species on the planet uses sounds to communicate, including mammals, birds and marine creatures.
Just like humans, dogs enjoy talking. Their barking can represent many different emotions, with the volume and pitch demonstrating what they want. For example, they bark when they are excited, when they are warning off people or other dogs, when they’re hungry or when they’re playing.
A scientific study in Hungary used special software to study 6,000 different barks made by sheepdogs. The computer programme identified that the dogs were communicating a whole range of different emotions using different pitches of barks. The Hungarian studies also found that only 40% of dog owners could differentiate between various dog barks and work out what their pet wanted.
When birds sing, it’s not for fun – it’s to speak to other birds. Many songbirds are limited in the range of sounds they can produce by genetics, in the same way that people have limitations. Birds are able to learn many variants within those physical limits. They learn how to sing in their youth, picking up how to make the sounds very quickly.
Birds can produce thousands of sound waves per second to make sounds and signals to other birds. Their membranes flutter to produce sound waves at a high frequency, creating the birdsong. Like other living creatures, birds are also programmed to know what the sounds mean when they receive them.
Whales make sounds to communicate, locate food and find each other. They produce particularly low frequencies when creating sounds. When swimming deep beneath the surface of the ocean, any sound they make creates a signal that can be picked up many miles away.
There are three main types of sound made by whales: whistles, clicks and pulsed calls. Scientists say the clicks are for navigation and identifying the whales’ surroundings.
They also use their fins and tails to make a loud slapping noise on the surface of the ocean. This sound is believed to be a warning, or a means of scaring a school of fish into swimming together, so they are easier to catch and eat.
Pulsed calls and whistles are used in a social way. They may sound like squeaks and squawks to humans. Just as with people, different “dialects” have been found in different whale pods. This enables them to recognise members of their own pod and strangers.
Howler monkeys have a resonating structure attached to their sound-producing organs. These create the frequencies and match the sounds to the medium, so that the calls are the correct volume.
The species is famous for producing some of the loudest calls in nature. They live in small groups and every morning, they all get together to make a deafening chorus of calls. The howling noise warns other monkeys to keep away from their feeding ground.
There are around 14 species of howler monkey. The one that makes the loudest call is the Venezuelan red, of South America, which can be heard up to 5km away!
Connecting with animals
Researchers are discovering ways to connect with animals, as they have found that many of the mechanisms involved in communicating are possessed by both people and animals. For example, humans and some animals have an ability to control the noises that are made.
Even though humans and dogs don’t speak the same language, both species can vary the tone, volume and emotions conveyed in the sounds. This is how dogs know we’re being friendly when we tell them they’re a “good boy”, for example – because the way we phrase the words and the tone that we use is something they can recognise.
According to a study published in the Science journal, tests carried out using brain scans revealed that dogs could even understand some words spoken by people. This is because dogs process language in a similar way. They are genuinely happy when the words spoken match the praising tone.
Copying human speech
Some animals can mimic human speech, such as Alex, the famous African grey parrot, who was trained by Irene Pepperberg, a scientist at Harvard University in the United States.
While Alex learned and imitated English words, such as telling Pepperberg, “I love you!”, did he actually understand what he was saying? A parrot’s vocal tract has a complex muscular structure and flexible tongue that enable them to easily produce human speech sounds.
According to Pepperberg, Alex fully understood what he was saying. He learned more than 100 English words and was able to combine them into sentences. It was reported that Alex’s poignant last words, before he died in 2007, at the age of 31, were to tell Pepperberg, “You be good. I love you.”
Another memorable creature who could talk like a person was a beluga whale called Noc at the National Marine Mammal Aquarium in Canada. He had been captured when young and always lived in captivity until he died in 1999.
Scientists reported how he learned to inflate his nasal cavities to produce a sound like a human voice. He taught himself and his uncanny skill was discovered only after an employee thought someone told him to “get out” of the aquarium, but only Noc was in the room, swimming in his tank!
There have been other celebrity animals who have been able to communicate with people, especially apes, such as Washo and Nim the chimpanzees and Kanzi the bonobo. They have been taught by scientists to use sign language, or use symbols on a keyboard.
What does the future hold?
Scientists are still researching whether it will ever be possible to talk to different species in the future, including those who currently don’t mimic or seem to understand human speech.
Leading the Dolphin Communication Project, the late Stan Kuczaj, a psychologist at the University of Southern Mississippi, was carrying out ground-breaking research with dolphins, up until his death in 2017.
Based at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, he tried to understand dolphin sounds, working out whether their whistle was a short sentence or a word, for example. He found it hard going – and his hopes that the dolphins would comment on life in the aquarium were short-lived, as they were only interested in asking for food!
Fellow scientist Diana Reiss researched with dolphins in the 1980s and proved that they could use an underwater keyboard to make basic requests. They soon learned which key to press to ask for something they wanted.
Justin Gregg, also involved in the Dolphin Communication Project, admitted it was difficult persuading dolphins to learn signals, such as a whistle signifying it was time to play with a ball. He said the dolphins behaved in a different manner from chimps and other apes, but far from showing a lack of intelligence, Gregg said the big stumbling block was motivation. He admitted, “Dolphins don’t seem to care.”
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