Updated: Aug 12, 2019
Humans have many ways that we communicate. Language may be the most obvious, but not necessarily the most reliable. In addition to words, we communicate through non-verbal means -- through body language, tone of voice, posture, moods, energy, and intuition. When words match the feelings, thoughts, intentions, and actions, they are very reliable. But words can hinder as well as help communication, such as is the case with lies. While good and honest, or congruent words can heal, they can do much harm -- as any child who has had their feelings badly hurt can tell you.
It would be a terrible mistake to assume -- as scientists have done in the past -- to assume that because animals don't use language, that they are not communicating. We now know that their body language and sounds and behaviors are meaningful and purposeful and that social animals in particular, are continuously communicating, in rich and complex ways.
If dogs were as judgmental as humans sometimes are, and tried to judge us through their sensory ability, they might think we were morons, because of our inability to smell at the level of precision that they can. But fortunately, dogs are much kinder than we are.
This is not to say that animals are incapable of deception for a reason, either for fun or for a reward. Jane Goodall has noted that chimpanzees may use trickery to sneak a treat from under her nose. Sy Montgomery (author of The Soul of an Octopus) describes an Octopus in an aquarium using what she called "flirting" in order to sneak a pail of fish right from under the researcher's noses. And a friend of mine, dolphin researcher in Hawaii, Dennis Aubrey, recounted a story about bored dolphins, refusing to do tricks they already knew. Then when the videotape was watched later, they saw that the dolphins did all the requested tricks ONLY when the trainer's backs were turned. Then, they would resort to the slow swimming pattern the frustrated trainers had observed.
As humans have begun to study animals, especially in their natural habitats and circumstances, they are beginning to understand the many effective ways that animals communicate with each other.
For example, Dr. Klaus Zuberbuhler was studying the alarm calls of Diana Monkeys in the Tai Forest of West Africa. He was able to distinguish specific warning calls when a predator was approaching. He found a slight variation in the warning for an eagle, which meant the monkeys needed to quickly race down the trees, and the one for a leopard, which meant the monkeys needed to streak up the trees.
Then he discovered that other species of monkeys correctly recognized these slightly nuanced vocalizations.
Next he discovered that the birds understood them also. And, remarkably, one day when he was late returning to camp, he was the one who was being pursued by a silent leopard – and the monkeys issued the warning calls. He recognized that the warning was “leopard approaching” and was able to take protective action and get back to safety.
Elephants can communicate with each other across hundreds of square miles through the use of infrasonic ultra-low frequency sounds that are inaudible to the human ear. They appear to be able to communicate complex information such as emotional states, keeping in touch, and passing on information. The Elephant Listening Project has been collecting data for over two decades, and the amount of information has caused the Cornell researchers to consider creating the First Elephant Dictionary. But as we explore in this unit, this research is just the tip of the iceberg of understanding of how elephants “seem to know” so much more than what we have previously considered possible.
Scientists are now discovering how complex communication is among Ravens and Crows, who in some intelligence tests, surpass primates. They have discovered they use their beak to point to things they want others to direct their attention to. Children around nine months will start pointing to things they want adults to pay attention to, or things they want. Some primates will do this. And dogs will often stare at something to indicate they want it. But this discovery that Ravens who obviously do not have hands are pointing, is making researchers look at crows with newfound interest.
As biologist Simone Pika of the Max Planck Institute notes, "We saw ravens use their beaks much like hands to show and offer items such as moss, stones, and twigs. These gestures were mostly aimed at members of the opposite sex and often led those gestured at to look at the objects. The ravens then interacted with each other — for example, by touching or clasping their bills together, or by manipulating the item together. As such, these gestures might be used to gauge the interest of a potential partner or strengthen an already existing bond. Most exciting is how a species, which does not represent the prototype of a 'gesturer' because it has wings instead of hands, a strong beak and can fly, makes use of very sophisticated non-vocal signals."
The video below discusses how Chimps communicate with each other, with complex behaviors, body language, sounds, facial expressions. And they even imitate new body language gestures that have specific meanings.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: Animal Consciousness Institute