(This has been adapted from a biology college paper and is more laughable than interesting.)
Animals may not be able to talk, but they certainly interact with each other and those around them, either using sounds or body language. These are friendly gestures, or marks of navigation, or alarms or taunts or courting songs. Some will mimic other sounds, and some must stand out against a vast body of nature’s music. Sometimes, it’s as simple as announcing lunch time.
If you have had the motivation to watch the video Talking to Strangers (you’re either a biology student or just really like David Attenborough. Legit on both fronts.), you’ll see Mr. Bird. Mr. Bird manages to communicate the location of some hidden honey bees to Mr. Human (and company). Mr. Human and his friends kindly remove the honey from the nest and share it with Mr. Bird. This is an example of friendly, mutualistic communication. Without the bird the men would not have found the bee hive, and without the men the bird could not access the honey.
Sorry, Mr. Bee. You aren’t part of the video’s Happily Ever After.
Sometimes animals can “talk their way” out of a fight or flight situation. A successful communicative history exists between Mrs. Lark and Mr. Merlin. Mr. Merlin has learned to discontinue pursuit of Mrs. Lark and her Cross Fit Aviator Team members who continue to sing while being chased. These gals prove to be too fit for the predator to catch.
While you’re massaging your ears with the voice of Sir Attenborough, you may catch a glimpse of some bouncy little gazelles. Instead of running away, these guys sometimes jump and leap and shout when approached by their nemeses. This only works for so long, so let’s hope for the gazelle’s sake that the predatory dogs are short on time. Otherwise the show was all for nothing – the gazelles tire out and the dogs can run way longer than Bambi’s awkward long lost cousin.
Some animals are a little better at charades. Some even outright lie. The Ringed Clover bird’s eggs are camouflaged in the rocks on the beach where mama laid them. The bird distracts the predator by pretending to run away injured, thus protecting the eggs. Your imagination can decide what happens to mama.
Not all animals can utilize visual communication. Blind moles communicate with one another through the very soil beneath our feet. They respond to vibrations created by other moles, or maybe, English naturalists who practice Morse Code. Lace wings communicate by vibrating their bodies. Similarly, water striders create ripples on the water surface using their legs.
Many animals use their voices to claim territory. Whether it is over a residence or a food source, organisms such as the Mangabee monkey defend their claims by singing. Lemurs also use vocal communication. They live as families, and together they create a song which either says “we live here” or “GTFO,” whichever way you want to take it. The female lemur leads and neighbours respond with their own family choruses. The Black Gibber, a species of monkey, is similar except it’s the male who leads. #FredEstaire
Monkeys are so cool. Some monkeys have even formulated “words”. They repeat the same sound to indicate particular things. A certain predator will have its own indicative sound. This alarms other monkeys of impending doom and helps everyone to protect one another. Some monkeys have even learned other species’ “words” and adopted them.
If we aren’t looking for a tree to pee on, we’re looking for a hot date. All sorts of organisms have developed unique ways to attract their counterparts. Often, birds will use high pitched voices. The Palm Cockatoo beats a stick on a stump, following it with a screeching call. Birds typically take the cake in courtship.
Toad Fishes have been known to create such a raucous in their breeding habits that they’ve been mistaken for power line surges and other mechanical malfunctions. Sometimes the telephone lines get jammed. In a chorus of many different types of male frogs, only the loudest are heard by the princess frog.
More quietly, the fireflies light up the night Malasian sky. These buggers communicate with the light produced by their bodies. It is another sort of Morse code, but which is received with the eyes and not the ears. This communication can be mimicked with a flashlight and proper timing. (Kind of related but not really a Blue Fish topic – go check out Li-Fi Internet after you leave a comment below. Or comment what you think of Li-Fi. Cuz it sounds pretty cool.)
Even in the sea, light is used as a form of communication. Fire worms secret a substance which glows under the water’s surface. In the depths of the sea, our little beauties like jellyfish and squids glow in the darkest parts of the planet in order to communicate.
Sound travels well in the water. We hear all sorts of things while diving, but it’s a strange experience because it’s darn near impossible to tell from where the sound is coming. On land it’s fairly simple to determine the source of a sound – your brain figures it out using the time difference between the sound hitting one ear before the other. Underwater, we don’t have this luxury. The time delay is too minimal as sound travels four times faster underwater than in the air.
Seals, whales, and fish are mostly the ones making noise underwater. Narwhals make clicking sounds which aid them in navigation. Some whales are so loud that they can make public announcements over several miles. Deaf water dwelling creatures communicate visually by changing colours.
Dolphins are excellent communicators. They converse almost continuously with ultrasonic clicks and whistles. Dolphins have their own “whistles” which act as their names for others to call them by. They rub their fins with those of other dolphins as two humans may shake each other’s hands.
Communication has evolved in the animal kingdom much as it has for humans. Even though there are no cell phones in the jungle and no Internet in the sea, wild animals have made sure that they will be heard, or seen, or felt. Successful animals have surpassed the trials of communication either to protect themselves and their territory or to attract a mate. In any case it is these animals who will be heard and will pass on their loud mouths to the next generation, keeping the song in tune.
**This post is adapted from an essay I wrote in 2010 while attending SLU.
Attenborough, D. (Director). (1990). Trials of life [Motion picture on VHS]. British Broadcasting Corporation in association with the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Graver, D. (2010). Scuba diving (4th ed., p. 32). Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics.