25 Amazing Ways Animals Communicate That You Never Knew About

And you thought we were the only creatures capable of language…

by Alex Daniel, BestLifeOnline

chimpanzees gazing wistfully at each other

Everyone knows that cats meow, dogs bark, and cows moo. But you don’t need Old MacDonald to tell you that animal communication is infinitely more complex than that. In fact, if you do a dive deep on how, exactly, some creatures talk to each other, you’ll find secret languages that make the disparate languages of humanity—of which there are 6,900, according to the Linguistic Society of America—seem rudimentary by comparison.

1 White Rhinos Speak via Dung

White rhino {best of 2018}
Shutterstock/Ondrej Prosicky

White rhinos, who have terrible eyesight, use communal dung heaps (called “middens”) as a something of a community bulletin board where they can leave messages—that one rhino is sick or another is ready to mate, if a dominant male has recently wandered through—to the rest of the group.

2 Mantis Shrimp Flash Lights

Mantis shrimp - Image
Shutterstock/WorldClass Photo

This creature has some of the most impressively complex eyesight in the animal kingdom, with 16 color receptors (compared to our measly three), which come in very handy when trying to communicate with one another. They use their own bodies to communicate using polarized light that other animals cannot spot. Researchers have found that they bounce light off bleu spots on their appendages called maxillipeds, scattering and arranging light across the surface in ways that can covey information to other mantis shrimp—rather than merely reflecting it.

3 Sperm Whales Click

Family of spermwhales underwater near water surface, shot from below - Image
Shutterstock/Willyam Bradberry

This species of whale uses clicking sounds known as “codas” to convey information to one another. Those in different areas of the ocean use different clicking patterns, sort of like regional dialects—so Caribbean sperm whales sound slightly different than those in another part of the ocean. Researchers have been particularly interested in a group near the Caribbean island of Dominica, which they’ve found may even have variations between different clans or individual whales.

4 Caterpillars Send Out Decoy Distress Calls to Ants

Alcon blue butterfly (Phengaris alcon) resting in grassy vegetation. It can be seen flying in mid to late summer. Like some other species of Lycaenidae, its larva (caterpillar) stage depends on ants. - Image
Shutterstock/Rudmer Zwerver

The caterpillar of the alcon blue butterfly scrapes its abdomen to create a kind of song. But unlike many other such critters, who use their communication techniques to contact others of their species, this is a message meant for a very different creature: red ants. The song imitates that of the red ant queen, so those soldier ants that hear it will guard the caterpillar, even killing their own kind in order to protect it.

5 African Elephants Vibrate to Each Other

Elephant and elephant. Kenya. Safari in Africa. African elephant. Animals of Africa. Travel to Kenya. Family of elephants. - Image
Shutterstock

Technically, elephants make very low sounds to one another. Thing is, they’re so low that it does not strike the human ear as a sound—or anything more than a rumbling vibration. Known as “infrasound” (sounds below 20 hertz, too low for humans to detect), this way of communicating may seem quiet to humans, but researchers estimate that one African elephant making an infrasound can be heard by another more than 175 miles away!

6 Tarsiers Screech

Philippine Tarsier Smallest Animals
Shutterstock/Jixin YU

These tiny, big-eyed primates living in Southeast Asia communicate at the opposite range of elephants—ultrasound frequencies over 20,000 Hertz that are far too high-pitched for the human ear to detect. Scientists recorded them using similar devices as those used to record bats, capturing their vocalizations at 70,000 Hertz, which is believed to help them communicate over the jungle noise (and out of range of predators), making it ideal for avoiding or alerting one another of danger. By the way, tarsiers are one of the smallest animals in the world.

7 Ravens Have Sign Language

Bird - flying Black Common raven (Corvus corax). Winter. Halloween - Image
Shutterstock/Marcin Perkowski

Just as humans use their hands to emphasize a point, ravens do their own kind of gesticulating, using their beaks and wings to show or offer items such as moss, stones or twigs (usually aimed at members of the opposite sex). They also interact by clasping their bills together or moving an item together, as a show of potential bonding.

8 Egyptian Fruit Bats Argue

Close-up Egyptian fruit bat or rousette, Rousettus aegyptiacus. on isolated black background - Image
Shutterstock

You’re probably aware that bats use high-pitched squeals to connect and communicate with each other. But you probably didn’t know how specific such communications could get. Researchers at Tel Aviv University used a machine-learning algorithm to recognize bats’ intonations and the messages they may be trying to convey, “translating” 15,000 calls into several specific messages—more than 60 percent were arguments about four specific things: food, sleep positions, invasion of personal space, or unwanted advances.

9 Chimpanzees Scratch Each Other

Wild chimpanzees
Shutterstock/GarySandyWales

Chimps love to groom and to be groomed. But just like your spouse or partner loves a backrub…but even more if you focus on that one spot right there, chimps can be particular about where they want to get scratched, using “referential gesturing” to draw the attention of another chimp to the specific area they’d like to have groomed.

10 Geckos “Seamless” Their Food

Gold dust day gecko licking the juicy red fruit of a green cactus at Moir Gardens, Kauai, Hawaii - Image
Shutterstock/The World Traveller

Day geckos, native to Madagascar, pioneered the idea of instant-order takeout long before Seamless (or even humans) came along. But rather than an app on their phones, they simply nod their heads at treehoppers—insects that digest sap an excrete it in a sugary liquid known as honeydew. When the gecko communicates to the treehoppers that it would like some of that honeydew, the insects oblige, excreting it right into the amphibian’s mouth.

11 Electric Fish Discharge Electricity

Gnathonemus petersii - Elephant nosed fish - Image
Shutterstock/Boban_NZ

You’re probably familiar with electrically charged sea creatures such as the electric eel, but there is a particular species of electric fish that is able to use its voltage as a means of communicating. Known as “weakly electric fish,” these creatures, which, as their name implies, produce a mild electric discharge, use it to “chirp” out information, such as a male stating it’s attracted a female. When two of these fish meet, they are known to tweak their wavelengths in order to allow each other to produce similar levels of voltage.

12 African Demon Mole Rats Head-Bang

Close up of a big-headed African mole-rat, Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. - Image
Shutterstock/Giedriius

“African Demon Mole Rat” sounds like a pretty good name for a metal band. As it turns out, these critters communicate through a kind of head-banging. Spending their lives underground, they can communicate with one another by thumping their heads against the tops of their tunnels, in that way sending vibrations through the earth that travel much farther attempting to make a loud noise would be able to. The pace and intensity of the thumps indicate different meanings. Rock on.

13 Black-Footed Titis Squeak

Masked titi monkey (Callicebus personatus), photographed in Santa Teresa, Espí­rito Santo - Brazil. Atlantic forest Biome. Wild animal. - Image
Shutterstock/Leonardo Mercon

When black-footed titis (a brown, rainforest-dwelling monkey), use high-pitched squeaks to let each other known not only what types of predator may be near but their general location. Researchers have found that the monkeys vary their calls in a number of ways, creating their own syntax and complex communication system.

14 Gorillas Hum

Gorilla
Shutterstock/Onyx9

Sometimes, singing to oneself is a way to tell the world you are away in your own world and don’t really want to be bothered by all the craziness happening elsewhere (hence, singing in the shower). That’s true of silverback gorillas too, which researchers have found will hum or sing while chomping down on their favorite vegetation. It’s not just a way to indicate that they are enjoying their meal, but a way to convey that they would prefer not to be bothered while eating. When they go quiet, that’s a sign that they are willing to chat.

15 Dholes Whistle

Alpha Male - Image Dhole whistling dog
Shutterstock/Nimi Virdi

Dholes, otherwise known as Asiatic wild dogs, are also sometimes called “whistling dogs“—and with good reason. These fox-like animals alert each other about the location of prey through whistle sounds. This allows them to make coordinated attacks on other animals much larger than them, communicating in packs to take down prey that’s more than 10 times their own body weight.

16 Prairie Dogs Call to Each Other

Shutterstock/Dr. Alan Lipkin

These creatures are known for their complex underground tunnel systems, but they also have complex ways of calling to one another, using slightly different intonations (reportedly of a “chee”-like sound) depending on the type of predator—coyote, hawk, human—nearby. In one study, they were found to seemingly identify the difference between a person wearing a blue shirt and one wearing a yellow shirt.

17 Tap-Dancing Blue-Capped Cordon Bleu

Blue Capped Cordon Blue (Uraeginthus cyanocephalus) spotted outdoors - Image
Shutterstock/Fireglo

As if its name isn’t cool enough, the blue-capped cordon bleu also has some killer dance moves, using a kind of winged tap dance to attract a mate. Both male and female birds of this species court by holding a piece of nesting material in their beak, and then bob up and down while they sing, and make super-fast dance steps with their feet. Researchers believe the dance is meant to not only catch the attention of a mate, but to demonstrate health and fitness.

18 Bison Choose Leaders With Their Feet

European bison - Bison bonasus in the Knyszyn Forest (Poland) - Image
Shutterstock/Szczepan Klejbuk

European bison are large creatures, but they speak softly, letting their feet do the talking. When the herds of these impressive creatures seek to move on, they decide which way to go not through the guidance of a single leader, but a complex process in which one of the members of the herd (it can be anyone, male or female, young or old) would walk 20 or more steps in a particular direction without stopping to graze. If the others trust the decision, they take the cue and follow along—and that leading animal becomes the herd’s de facto leader (until the process restarts). Perhaps we could take a cue from the bison…

19 Apes Stomp, Clap, and Shake Heads

Western Lowland Silverback Gorilla Clapping Hands - Image

There are many, many other cool ways that great apes communicate with each other; researchers have isolated some 80 gestures at least. But what may be most interesting is that these significantly overlap with human toddlers; as Smithsonian puts it, “researchers found the human toddlers used 52 discrete gestures to communicate, including clapping, hugging, stomping, raising their arms and shaking their heads, often stringing the moves together to convey complex ideas. It turns out that the chimps also used 46 of the same gestures, meaning there’s a 90 percent overlap.”

20 Caribbean Reef Squid Changes Color

Caribbean Reef Squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea), hovering over a tropical coral reef off the island of Roatan, Honduras. - Image
Shutterstock

Using specialized cells containing pigments and light-reflecting molecules known as chromataphores, the Caribbean reef squid can change the color of their skin to convey a variety of messages: to court a potential mate, to warn others of a predator or a number of other messages—even conveying one message to a squid on their left side and a different one to a squid on their right.

21 Dancing Bees, Well, Dance

Close up of flying bees. Wooden beehive and bees, blured background. - Image
Shutterstock

Research going back centuries has noted that bees use dance moves to alert fellow hive-dwellers of a honey source. A famous study found that, when a bee discovered a honey source, it would head to the hive, performing a dance while other bees touched its abdomen, allowing the others to then find the honey source without needing to be shown. The direction and speed of the dance indicated specific geolocation details that the others could follow.

22 Jackdaws Glare

close up portrait of a jackdaw with head filling the frame looking at the camera with blue eyes on a light background - Image
Shutterstock/Philip Openshaw

Just as humans can stare people down with their eyes in order to express their anger or frustration, so too can jackdaws, a bird that’s part of the same family as crows, ravens, and jays. Researchers have found that one of these birds will use his conspicuous eyes to glare at a would-be competitor, deterring it from trying to take over his nest.

23 Coral Groupers Team Up For Hunts

 Coral hind grouper (Cephalopholis miniata) in the coral reef - Image
Shutterstock/AquaPix

When these predatory fish are outsmarted by prey that dives deep into the cracks of the coral reefs, it get some help from other predatory species: usually either the napoleon wrasse or moray eel. The grouper will point with its nose to the location of the fish, shaking its body, and the wrasse will smash against the coral to open it up or the eel will creep into the cracks itself. Thanks to this team work, at least one of the predators, if not both, usually end up with dinner.

24 Chimpanzee Footsie

Monkey relaxing on rock in zoo - Image
Shutterstock/Tom Van Dyck

You could spend a lifetime analyzing chimps’ gestures. There are so many, in fact, that you can review an entire Great Ape Dictionary. Chimps have striking similarities with humans, and one of the other ways that researchers have found they signal to one another is through extending their feet to alert another (usually young) chimp to climb on them to travel.

25 Warbling Antbirds Sing Off-Time

White-bibbed Antbird photographed in Domingos Martins, Espí­rito Santo - Southeast of Brazil. Atlantic Forest Biome. Picture made in 2013. - Image
Shutterstock/Leonardo Mercon

Female Peruvian warbling antbirds will not tolerate other females making moves on their male mate and convey that message clearly to any would-be competitor who invades their territory. The mates generally sing together in a kind of charming harmony, but at the sight of an interloper, the female will shift to an arrhythmic singing that messes up the sound and creates an unpleasant cacophony, ensuring the other woman is not allured by the usual pleasant singing that might otherwise attract her. And for more on all things animal, check out these 50 Amazing Animal Facts

Shelter – part 3

© Karla McLaren 2014

Milton’s behavior in round two is interesting.  He has moved very far away from the untouched treat I placed on the left side of his blanket, and he sits very still on the rightmost side of the front of his kennel, staring fixedly, straight ahead.  I sneak some sideways glances at him from my kneeling position.  He’s a very handsome boy with a Doberman’s black and brown coloring, but his body shape and size is closer to a Beagle’s.  He’s a fit, compact little guy, with a clean short coat and healthy skin and paws.  I know that he hasn’t been given a bath here at the shelter (no one has time), so he’s clearly very careful about his own hygiene.  Very self-contained.  Milton’s body language interests me, because even in the confines of his kennel, he has many choices.  If he really didn’t want to see me, he could simply go outside in his run, and effectively disappear.  He could also curl up against the wall and present his back to me.  He could push the treat outside his kennel, tear up his blankets, or rush the kennel door and bark menacingly.  But he does none of these truly antisocial things.  Instead, Milton has entered into a relationship with me – and in all honesty, I think he’s trying to teach me manners.

I continue to kneel, and I watch Milton out of the corner of my eye.  His eyes do not seek mine, but his stare has changed from the beady malevolence of our first meeting to a more relaxed yet determined stare.  If we were humans, and if we were looking at each other, this would be a staring contest.  But with Milton in charge, it’s a not-staring contest, and Milton is in it for the duration.  I can see Jake in the next kennel, sitting patiently and quietly, but getting antsy as he waits for me, and I wonder about my next move in Milton’s dance.  I wonder if I should take the offending treat away, but I think that would be a mistake.  It was a gift, which means it belongs to him now. And though he hasn’t eaten it, he is using it to communicate with me.  I don’t want to make the wrong move.

If I were a dog, Milton’s determined stare of avoidance would mean that I had broken a social rule.  My response, if I didn’t want to get into a fight, would be to cease my incorrect behavior and make myself small and subordinate.  I wondered if this would be a good thing.  At the shelter, we’re supposed to position ourselves as the lead dogs in this pack, but I grew up with animals who knew with absolute certainty that they were the real leaders.  My brother’s brilliant dog, Johann, pretty much trained himself and looked after my sisters and brothers as if he were our uncle.  My cat Sofia, who learned to open doors and turn on faucets, lived life on her own terms.  Or my little bonsai stray, Kiku, who had every disease known to felinity and never grew much larger than a kitten, yet who taught herself to use her litter box, to put herself to bed every night, and to understand all the intricate rules of human-cat wrestling.

I felt that Johann, Sofia, and Kiku would be offended by the shelter’s training methods, even though these methods were humane and respectful for most animals. These three were self-contained animals, very self-aware, and extremely quick to decipher all the rules of the house and human relationships.  I wondered if Milton was this kind of animal, and if he had had the extremely bad luck to have an owner who treated him like a knucklehead, which to be fair, some dogs truly are.  I wondered if Milton was not so much hateful and dangerous as he was affronted by treatment that did not respect his innate intelligence and his dignity.

I made a decision. I looked up and down the kennel rows to make sure no staff person was around, and I lay down on the cold cement walkway in front of Milton and curled my head in supplication.  I waited for a few seconds, and then reached my hand gently toward Milton’s kennel door – not touching it, but asking if I could.  I peered up at Milton, and he looked down his nose at me for a long second, then looked away, off to the left.  I looked in that direction, too.  I touched my side of the metal frame of his kennel door – I didn’t put my hand inside.  Milton didn’t look back at me, but he slowly reached out with his left paw and touched the frame on his side.  We weren’t looking at each other, and we weren’t touching, but we were both looking in the same direction and touching the same door frame, and we had reached some kind of compromise in Milton’s world.

I didn’t want to break the mood, but I was cruising for a bruising from the staff if I got caught here – especially if I got caught letting a dog take what the staff saw as a dominant role.  So I whispered, “Thank you Milton – you’re a good dog,” and I slowly placed a new treat on the bottom frame of Milton’s kennel door, between his paw and mine. I got to my knees slowly and crawled to Jake’s kennel.  The poor sweetie had been waiting very patiently, so I patted him through the kennel bars, scratched his long ears, and gave him two treats, and then went further into the chained-off area.  On my way back out, I lowered my head when I got to Milton’s kennel.  I didn’t look at him, but I whispered, “I love you Milton. You’re a very good dog.”

The third round through is the final training moment before I start walking specific dogs, doing mountains of kennel laundry, or working in the cat annex.  In the first two rounds, I had established myself as someone to look forward to, and I had given all of the dogs some idea of correct behaviors (and two almost free treats).  This time, the treats have a real cost – the dogs have to be seated, still, and quiet, and almost isn’t rewarded on the third pass.  Many dogs get very excited and begin to bark as I near them, but I make eye contact, raise my finger to my lips, shake my head, and say, “NO, quiet.”

to be continued next week…

for part 1: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/07/shelter/
for part 2: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/14/shelter-part-2/

Karla McLaren is a pioneering educator and award-winning author whose empathic approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” emotions, and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. She is the author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, the trailblazing book The Language of Emotion: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, and the interactive online course Emotional Flow. Karla has taught at such venues as the University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Kripalu, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology. She is currently developing new forms of empathy and social interaction curricula for neurologically diverse people.

The Art of Empathy

What if there were a single skill that could radically improve your relationships and your life? Empathy, teaches empathic pioneer Karla McLaren, is that skill. In The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, McLaren presents her groundbreaking model of The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy to help you understand and nurture healthy empathy in every part of your life.  Informed by four decades of empathic experience, plus current insights from neuroscience, social science, the arts, and healing traditions, The Art of Empathy teaches you how to become a healthy and happy empathic presence in a world that needs you