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Wild Language—The Secrets of Animal Communication

Wild Language—The Secrets of Animal Communication

 Wild Language​—The Secrets of Animal Communication


WITHOUT a doubt, one of the most precious gifts humankind has been given is the power to communicate. With it we pass vital information to one another either verbally or by nonvocal methods, such as gestures. Freedom of speech is, in fact, a widely contested issue throughout the earth. Some have therefore assumed that communication is only the preserve of humans.

Yet, research shows that animals exchange information in intricate ways that often baffle humans. Yes, they “speak,” not with words, but through visual signals such as wagging tails, twitching ears, or flapping wings. Other forms of communication may involve the use of voice, such as a bark, a roar, a snarl, or the song of a bird. Some of the “languages” are obvious to humans, while others require much scientific study to detect.


It is mid-July. In the sprawling Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, thousands upon thousands of wildebeests are heading northward toward the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya in search of greener pastures. The plains resonate with the sound of hooves during this annual migration. However, dangers lurk along the way. The route is lined with predatory animals, such as lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and leopards. The wildebeests will also take their chances by crossing the crocodile-infested Mara River. How do wildebeests ward off predators?

To confuse the enemy, the wildebeest, or gnu, will run fast over a short distance and then turn around to face the enemy, all the while tossing its head from side to side. It will throw its legs about in a freakish manner, creating a rather ludicrous show. Even a hardened predator will not fail to stop in amazement on seeing this erratic dance. Should the predator insist on approaching, the wildebeest will do a repeat performance. This so confuses the intruder that the hunt may  be abandoned after the concert. The ungainly dance has earned the wildebeest the dubious distinction of being the clown of the plains.

The wildebeest’s smaller cousins, impalas, are known for their gigantic leaps. To many, these high jumps could signify gracefulness and speed. In times of trouble, though, this antelope uses its soaring techniques to make it difficult for a predator to trap it by the legs. The leaps, up to 30 feet [9 m] in length, give the attacker a clear message, “Follow if you can keep up with me.” Few animals of prey are willing to do so just to bring down the unwilling impala!

A Time to Eat

In the wild many predatory animals have to develop their hunting skills in order to become good hunters. Young ones must pay keen attention as their parents take them through the paces. In an African animal sanctuary, a cheetah named Saba was observed giving vital lessons of survival to her cubs. After stalking a grazing Thomson’s gazelle for over an hour, she made a giant leap forward and then trapped and choked the hapless antelope​—but without killing it. Moments later, Saba dropped the dazed animal in front of her cubs, which were strangely reluctant to throw themselves at the prey. These young cheetahs understood why Mother had brought a live animal to them. She wanted them to learn how to kill the gazelle. Each time the prey tried to get up and run, the overexcited cubs brought it down. Exhausted, the gazelle gave up the fight for survival. Watching from a distance, Saba approved their actions.

Some animals specialize in making as much noise as possible while searching for food. A pack of spotted hyenas will grunt, snort, and giggle while running after prey. Once the kill is made, other hyenas will be invited to the feast by the hyenas’ infamous “laugh.” However, hyenas do not always hunt for food. In the wild they are among the worst of the food pirates​—using all methods of harassing other predators to get their kill. Why, they have been known to scare away lions from their meal! How do they accomplish this? Boisterous animals, they will work themselves into a frenzy in a bid to disturb the feeding lions. Should the cats ignore the noise, the hyenas will become more excited and bolder. Their peace disrupted, the felines often abandon the  carcass and move away from the area.

Among bees the search for food is a complicated ritual. Complex scientific studies have revealed that by dancing, a honeybee informs others in the hive of the location, type, and even quality of the food found. On its body a bee carries samples of the food, such as nectar or pollen, back to the other bees in the hive. Doing a figure-eight dance, it is able not only to direct others to the food source but also to indicate the distance to be covered. Watch out! That bee hovering around you might be collecting some vital information to take back home. Your scented perfume could be mistaken for its next meal!

Keeping in Touch

Few sounds are as spectacular as the roar of a lion during a quiet night. Several reasons have been advanced for this communication. A male’s mighty roar is a warning to all that he is in the territory; intrude at your own risk. However, being a social cat, the lion will also roar to keep in touch with other members of the pride. This is usually a softer, less assertive roar. During one night a lion was heard to roar every 15 minutes until a cousin answered from a distance. They kept “talking” for another 15 minutes until they finally met. The roars ceased.

Such contacts not only enhance good relationships but also offer protection against  harsh weather elements. A hen will utter several vocalizations that convey different messages to her chicks. The most distinct, however, is the long, low purring sound made in the evening, indicating that she has come home to roost. Heeding Mother’s call, the scattered young ones gather under her wings and retire for the night.​—Matthew 23:37.

Finding a Partner

Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by the melody of songbirds? Are you not fascinated by their ability to sing the notes? Yet, did you know that entertaining you is the least they intend to do? Their songs are methods of passing important messages. Although at times singing is a means of establishing territory, it is also used in a large way to attract potential mates. According to The New Book of Knowledge, “the amount of singing drops by 90 per cent” once the male and the female have found each other.

Sometimes, however, it takes more than just a good song to win a partner. Some female birds require that a “bride-price” be paid before they are won over by a male. Thus, a male weaverbird will have to demonstrate his nest-building skills before making further moves. Other male species will prove their ability to provide by literally feeding the female.

The intricate ways in which animals communicate not only serve their physical needs but also reduce fights and promote peace in the wild. With more research being done on animal communication, we have yet to hear the last of this “wild talk.” Although we may not comprehend it fully, it does bring praise to the one who formed it, Jehovah God.

[Box/Pictures on page 18, 19]

Elephants’ “Sound of Silence”

On a hot afternoon in the sprawling Amboseli National Park in Kenya, the large herd of elephants seems undisturbed by any intrusion into their habitat. Yet, the air is full of “elephant talk,” ranging from low frequency rumblings to high frequency trumpets, roars, bellows, barks, and snorts. Some of the calls contain components that are below the level of human hearing and yet are so powerful that they can be heard by an elephant several miles away.

Experts in animal behavior continue to be puzzled by the intricate ways in which elephants convey serious messages. Joyce Poole has spent over 20 years studying communication concepts among African elephants. She has concluded that these huge creatures, known for their coveted tusks, exhibit feelings found in very few animals. “It is hard to watch elephants’ remarkable behavior during a family or bond group greeting ceremony [or at] the birth of a new family member . . . and not imagine that they feel very strong emotions which could be best described by words such as joy, happiness, love, feelings of friendship, exuberance, amusement, pleasure, compassion, relief, and respect,” says Poole.

When getting together after being separated for long periods, their greetings turn to pandemonium, as members rush together with heads high and ears folded and flapping. At times, an elephant will even put its trunk into another’s mouth. These greetings seem to give the elephants a deep sense of joy, as if they were saying, “Wow! It’s simply fantastic to be with you again!” Such bonds renew the support network vital to their survival.

Elephants seem to have a sense of humor too. Poole describes watching elephants draw the corners of their mouths in what she called a smile, wagging their heads in a manner suggesting amusement. She once initiated a game in which the animals took part, and for 15 minutes they behaved in a totally absurd manner. Two years later, some participants seemed to “smile” at her again, perhaps remembering her involvement in the game. Not only do elephants amuse each other in play but they also mimic sounds. In a research project, Poole heard a sound that was different from the normal elephant calls. On analysis, it was suggested that the elephants were imitating the noise made by trucks passing nearby. And they were apparently doing it for fun! It is as if elephants look for any excuse to get excited.

Much has been said about the way elephants appear to mourn when calamity befalls a family member. Poole once observed a female standing guard over her stillborn baby for three days and described it this way: Her “facial expressions” seemed “similar to a grief stricken, depressed person: her head and ears hung down, the corners of her mouth were turned down.”

Those who kill elephants for ivory do not consider the ‘psychological trauma’ of the orphans who may have witnessed the killing of their mothers. These babies spend the first few days at an animal orphanage trying to overcome their “grief.” A keeper reported having heard the orphans “scream” in the morning. Repercussions can be observed several years after the death. Poole suggests that the elephants can detect the hand of man in their suffering. We look forward to the time when man and beast will live together in peace.​—Isaiah 11:6-9.

[Picture on page 16, 17]

Cape gannets in their greeting routine

[Picture on page 17]

A wildebeest performs an erratic dance to confuse the enemy

[Picture on page 17]

The hyena’s infamous “laugh”

[Credit Line]

© Joe McDonald

[Picture on page 18]

The honeybee’s dance