Animals can Talk - Just not with Words
Dog owners will tell you that they know exactly what their beloved pet is trying to communicate to them. And cat owners will tell you what each little meow and purr means.
But you don’t have to own a pet to experience intercommunication with an animal – in fact, basic interspecies communication is built into every animal; even you.
Sight and sound are the primary communication senses for humans, and smell falls by the wayside for us. Big mammals like bears, wolves, big cats – and even tiny ones, like mice, bees and ants – use scent as a way of telling others who they are and what they should know about them. Many animals have highly developed scent-detecting organs to decipher the messages left on rocks, trees or released into the air.
Each animal has a distinct scent signature, and the makeup of the scent profile can change depending on what they’re trying to communicate. For example, if a female animal wants to mate, she’ll mark with a scent that tells others that she’s receptive. Or, if a male is trying to take over new territory, he’ll mark with a scent that says he’s in charge now.
Smell, on land at least, is the king of communication for animals. But as humans, we lack the means to communicate effectively with scent – as do many other creatures. In the animal kingdom, sight and sound are primary senses – but they’re used as secondary, usually defensive, communication strategies.
Have you ever seen a frightened dog? Tail tucked between legs, body hunched low, ears ducked down – these are the signs of an animal that wants to take flight. And as humans, we can interpret these signs (and usually get upset ourselves) as an emotional response that we share.
On the other side is aggression; when a cat is defending a patch of territory, it puffs out the fur on its body and tail, arches its back and extends its legs – to seem as big as possible. It starts growling, moaning and hissing – and then fires “warning shots” by swiping its exposed claws.
These signs of aggression are present far and wide across the animal kingdom – including in us. When we’re scared, we make ourselves small. When we’re being aggressive, we shout and make ourselves tall and open. We’ve evolved with and alongside these traits – so we and the animals we share the world with all recognise them.
It’s like a universal translation system for fear and aggression: big and loud = time to fight, small and quiet = time to run.
Well – almost. There are plenty of exceptions – some of which are amazingly alien.
Different Ways of Communicating
We’ve never seen other animals using language like we do – unless you count the great apes taught to use sign language throughout the years. But some animals are markedly better at communicating than others, with some using communication techniques (among other things) that are mind boggling and alien to us.
Enter, the octopus. If you’d never heard of one before, you’d be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t native to this planet; a boneless, eight-limbed, jet-propelled genius of a creature, with active camouflage and shape-shifting capabilities. It sounds like an invader from space, or a superhero – not like an ocean-dwelling mollusc.
This incredible invertebrate is so intelligent that it routinely outsmarts prey, predators and humans. It is practically invisible in any environment, because it can change the colour and texture of its skin to perfectly match its surroundings.
It does this with chromatophores – specialist skin cells that can change colour, connected to a complex nerve structure. Colour can be changed at will, by reflex, by physiology – and by emotions.
An octopus will turn darker when signalling aggression, and paler to de-escalate a potentially violent situation. Such communicative displays are shared by cuttlefish and squid – close relatives of the octopus, with the same colour-changing skin cells.
But is it Language?
Animals, for all their incredible beauty and intelligence, do not have languages that we know of. Whale song is two-way, but we don’t know what (if anything) is being shared. Koko the gorilla can sign – and has shown signs of high emotional intelligence – but her signing is human trained behaviour, and not a normal capability of great apes. Chimps have a distinct set of gestures used to communicate, and while it’s very impressive to see this kind of behaviour, it’s non-vocal and simplistic.
Although parrots and other birds can have remarkable vocabularies, there’s little evidence that they know what they’re saying beyond the context of being rewarded for using the correct response sound.
For now, we’re alone as a species with languages – but one day, we might discover what all those whale songs, dolphin clicks and chimp gestures mean.