What do you do when you want to communicate with your fellow animal, but they’re miles away? In the case of the elephant, you emit a super low frequency sound – inaudible to the human ear – audible to your friend over 10km away. Impressive stuff, especially considering our voices become unintelligible at around 100 metres. And it gets more impressive. The songs made by the humpback whale are the lengthiest, most intricate sounds made by any animal. Helped by the fact that sound travels over four times faster in water than air, these songs can reportedly be heard thousands of kilometres away.
Unlike whales, which communicate using low frequency sounds, dolphins tend to use higher frequencies. Each dolphin has a signature whistle, which they use like a name to identify themselves and to convey personal information. Sometimes they vary these signature whistles, and one scientific theory is that they do this to express their emotional state. Similarly sophisticated but back on dry land, the prairie dog takes top prize for complex communication. Research shows they have a rich vocabulary of sounds, which they use to warn others of particular types of predators, including one that means humans are coming. They can even vary their calls depending on which human they’ve seen.
Visual communication is another way that animals exchange messages. Caribbean reef squids can change body patterns to send different signals to their peers, from invitations to mate to warnings to back off. And if looks could kill, the neon décor of the poison dart frog sends an unambiguously loud message that says approach me at your peril. Visual cues are also used to identify members of a family group or species. Paper wasps have a human-like ability to recognise individuals of their species by variations in facial markings. These markings also signal their fighting ability – wasps with more irregular black spots are better fighters and are consequently avoided by rivals.
Tactile communication, chemical communication – involving pheromones – or a mash-up of methods are also used to convey messages. When chimps are seen grooming each other, it’s not just about looking good. These primates have strong family structures, and these hierarchies inform who grooms whom. The higher up the social order they are, the more pampering they get. Dolphins also use physical contact to communicate. A hard headbutt is used to ward off rival males during the mating period, while gentle bumps and touches are signs of affection.
Even ants use touch to communicate, using their antenna and front legs. More commonly though, ants communicate with other colony members using pheromones, which they sniff out with their antenna and which can reveal everything from colony activity to the location of food. Releasing and smelling powerful pheromones is also the main way that wasps communicate with each other. Odourless to humans and a sign of danger to other insects, these potent chemicals can communicate everything from enticements to mate to messages regarding food sources.
Anther stripy insect, the honeybee, has an extraordinary way of relaying information. To tell other bees the whereabouts of food, they perform a unique set of Beyoncé-esque movements known as the ‘Waggle Dance’. From their dark honeycomb dancefloor, the dancing bee vigorously waggles their abdomen from side to side, intently watched by a group of worker bees who decode the buzzy vibrations. With mind-blowing accuracy, the duration of the waggle communicates how far away the food is, the angle of the waggle indicates the direction it can be found in and the intensity of the waggle indicates the quality of the food.
While most animal communication takes place between the same members of a species, it can also take place between different species. An obvious example is the communication between us humans and our pets. As we’ve shown, some animals are highly sociable and expressive, while others communicate only when absolutely necessary. Some animal species rely on just one method of communication to talk to each other, while some species use a combination. And the different messages animals send can be complex and varied, specific or general and even communicate different things to different receivers simultaneously.
Working out what animals are saying to each other isn’t just fascinating, it’s useful too. By understanding what messages animals are communicating, the greater our understanding of the world around us and the better we can look after it. Understanding animal communication can help us in the conservation of endangered species. If we know how different animals communicate, we can work out which kinds of human activity might endanger them further.
Cargo ships for example, make a lot of underwater noise and even engines from smaller boats can confuse or drown out whale songs and dolphins’ sonar, making it hard for these animals to survive. By carefully choosing where we locate shipping lanes or what types of boats we allow in certain coastal areas, we can help protect these animals and their habitats. And by understanding how moths communicate using pheromones, we can apply it to pest control. By recreating specific pheromones to lure destructive moths away from valuable museum objects, we can avoid using potentially dangerous chemicals. When it comes to animal communication we’re constantly learning. But one thing’s for sure. In the animal world as in the human world of design, there are many different and dazzling ways to express yourself. It’s about fully understanding who you’re talking to and finding the most impactful way possible to get their attention.