The natural world is full of incredible forms of communication, evident in the ways animals interact with each other. Even trees and plants communicate through a process called jasmonate. While humans may take pride in our technology-based methods of communication, animals have been using sophisticated forms of communication for much longer.
This article will explore the communication methods of a few selected animal species, as there simply isn’t enough space to discuss them all in detail.
Vocalization is an obvious form of communication, utilized not only by humans but by animals as well. While some animals make audible sounds, others make inaudible ones, such as the giraffe’s use of infrasonic communication. Although most of the sounds they make are too low-pitched for us to hear, with appropriate instruments, we can pick up on grunts, moans, and even whistles that travel several kilometers.
Now, let’s discuss another animal that makes audible sounds – the spotted hyena. If you’ve been on safari, you may have heard their eerie “whoooOOp” in the darkness, which can be quite unsettling. These fascinating animals have a complex language that allows them to communicate on various levels, including whines, grunts, growls, and even “laughs”. The “laugh” seems to come out when the animals are nervous or excited, particularly around a kill site where they need to maintain social distancing from each other. This sound also serves to demarcate their territory, and clan strength, as well as call for backup to fend off pesky lions from their kill.
The sense of smell is powerful in triggering nostalgic memories in humans, but it serves a much more vital purpose in the everyday lives of animals. Take the example of the white rhino, a creature of habit with a strong reliance on its sense of smell. Rhinos use ancient paths left by elephants and themselves to lead them to two important destinations – a water source/mud wallow or a latrine of sorts called a midden.
Rhinos are particular about where they use the toilet, often traveling miles just to reach their favorite spot. Along the way, males drag their feet through the soil before spraying urine over the ground they have scratched. This unique fragrance is important for territorial males to warn imposters and let females know whose territory they are in. That’s why these males do the rounds every few days to keep their scent fresh and vibrant.
Territorial males use middens, where they defecate, to maintain their dominance. Females and younger males also leave their mark at these midden. The territorial male leaves his mark in the center to show strength and dominance, trampling the dung to release more of his scent and cover his feet in the odor. Females and younger males leave their calling cards towards the periphery of the midden. This creates one smelly situation, but the rhinos understand it, knowing exactly when a passing female is in heat and what age she might be.
Through a whiff, females can tell which male is dominant in the area and his age. This helps them decide whether or not to stay in the area to potentially mate with the territorial bull or move on to the next territory where the male may smell better.
When we think of communication through touch, we often envision a kiss on the cheek or a warm hug from a loved one. Unfortunately, in today’s world, such displays of affection are not always possible for humans due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, animals never got the memo about this virus, and one need only go on a safari to witness some species enjoying various forms of physical contact. Perhaps the most notable example of such communication can be found in the African elephant, the largest land animal on earth. Elephants are known for their tactile nature and their use of their versatile trunks to convey messages and emotions. They guide their young by nudging them gently in the right direction, and at times even use their trunks to administer discipline, as I once witnessed a large bull elephant smacking a younger one for daring to eat from the same bush.
But what is most striking about these gentle giants is how they express affection toward each other. It is not uncommon to see elephants wrapping their trunks around each other or resting them atop each other’s heads. Studies have suggested that elephants even put their trunks into each other’s mouths as a way of showing compassion and reassurance.
Of course, elephants are not the only animals that engage in such tactile communication. Lions often nuzzle each other to strengthen their bonds within a pride, while baboons groom one another and zebras rest their heads on each other’s backs. These touching displays of affection remind us that communication can take many forms and that sometimes the simplest gestures can convey the deepest emotions. Unless, of course, you happen to be a young elephant bull who finds himself on the receiving end of a disciplinary smack!
Visual communication is an important aspect of the animal kingdom, and it can be observed in various species. When we introduce a new cat to our house, we often see our resident feline puffing up its fur, arching its back, and sometimes hissing. This is an example of visual communication, as the cat is trying to look as big and intimidating as possible. In the wild, we can see similar behavior in the African wild cat, although it is rare to observe them in confrontations.
However, in the bush, we can observe the communication of other animals, such as hippos. If you are lucky enough to enjoy an evening sundowner at a watering hole with hippos, you may see them perform a classic yawn. This behavior is not a yawn, but rather a warning signal to let others know about the size of their mouth and teeth. Hippos can be quite grumpy animals, so it’s best to heed their warnings and keep a safe distance. They may also produce grunting sounds as a vocal form of communication.
Many other species utilize visual communication, such as leopards snarling at intruding hyenas to show off their teeth, or male birds changing their appearance during the breeding season, like the male spectacled weaver. It’s fascinating to observe the different ways animals use visual cues to communicate with each other.
Sadly, we humans seem to have lost the ability to sense pheromones. Well, at least that’s what the studies would suggest. There is a very special organ required to sense them, this is called the vomeronasal organ which is also known as Jacobson’s organ. While we have remnants of this organ, it isn’t anything developed enough to sense pheromones. Thus, it is believed, that if humans do in some way sense pheromones it would be through old-fashioned smell. However, we are here to discuss animals, and the group of animals that comes to mind most in this respect is cats. They just have such a visual way of showing that they are sensing pheromones. We call this the flehmen grimace and it is not at all limited to just the cats, but because of their mighty teeth, it’s them who look most interesting doing it.
This usually occurs when a lioness urinates, if there are any males with her they often become very interested in this action. Soon thereafter the male will approach the site where the lioness urinated, bend down, sniff intensely, and then stand back up while curling his lips back, displaying his huge teeth, squeezing his eyes closed, and looking like he is visibly in pain. What he is doing during this time is forcing the pheromone towards the base of his nasal cavity behind the incisors within his mouth where the ducts to the vomeronasal organ are found. From here the pheromone can be sensed to determine things such as the lionesses’ mating readiness, age, health, and status within the pride. One thing for sure is that it is a fun thing to see and photograph while out on safari.
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