Listening to animals

“Some people talk to animals.  Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”
– A A Milne, Winnie the Pooh

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Until the lion has its own storyteller, tales of the lion hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Zimbabwean proverb

John Hollander once wrote that “we name animals, but if any of them name us – dolphins or gorrilas, perhaps – the system has yet to be represented”.  Well, wild elephants do have a word for human being, and it indicates danger.  However, his comment echoes a long thought, general assumption, that humans are the only animals which have a language, or at least that our language is vastly superior.

Language, more so than base communication, has been used as a marker of humanness but the nature of animal communication is so different to ours that we haven’t been able to understand or translate them and hence are unable to understand the complexity.  What we have long failed to accept or consider is that communication and language is going to be geared to life experiences –  for example, if you live in the sea, you need to communicate in a way that can be heard in water.

Whenever humans have tried to teach animals to speak, it has been trying to make them speak as we do.  Human language is seen as the gold standard and this approach has inevitably failed because we have different physiological systems and are not designed to make the same vocalisations. We also fail to think about non audible communications.  If we want to talk to animals, we should listen to the communication that they are sharing.  Animals are talking all around us, we just don’t hear them.

“The research, though still at an early stage, does show that animals communicate, that they do so in a more complex way than we previously believed and that certain characteristics in different species correspond to human language.”
– Eva Meijer

Prairie dog communication has been studied and translated in a way that many other animal languages haven’t been.  Their language is made up from verbs, nouns and adverbs and they can use their words in new combinations to reflect new threats.  It is highly sophisticated and is complemented by body language.  And of course, it’s not just us and prairie dogs who have complex languages.  Whales, octopuses, bees and many birds have a grammar system.

“Animal languages sometimes also have complex structures, can be symbolic and abstract, and can refer to situations in the past or the future, or beyond the reach of animals in some other way.”
– Eva Meijer

Chimps use numerous gestures and vocalisations to communicate – by 2015, 66 vocalisations and 88 gestures had been mapped to compile a dictionary.  For example, nibbling on a leaf is an invitation to flirt!

Elephants are thought to have an extensive language which can express information about emotions, intentions and physical characteristics.  A zoo born elephant called Batyr sadly never met another elephant and possibly driven by loneliness, he learnt to say over 20 sentences which included swearing and ‘Batyr is good’.  He could change the sound of his name depending on his mood and as well as mimicking humans, he could also mimic the sounds of dogs and mice.

But of course, communication is not just made through vocalisations.  Animals communicate through body language, behaviour, scent and chemicals.  Hyenas communicate by making use of scent signals from their anal glands.  Its well known that dogs communicate in the same way and for some animals, urine and excrement are a way of sharing information.  For example, wombat poo (which is cubed) provides details about the individual including sex and whether a female is in heat.

“Colour in fish is believed to be a complex language that humans still know little about… The mantis shrimp communicates using colours and has twelve colour channels, while humans have only three.”
– Meijer

Honeybees communicate through dance and chemical signals.  Whilst it’s fairly common knowledge that their dance passes on information about which direction the pollen is, it can also give details about distance, how much nectar there is and dance to decide where the best location is for a new nest.  The latter involves telling the rest of the hive how good a new spot is – the better the location, the longer the dance. 

Sharks make the water move in certain ways to communicate with other sharks, as well as using sound, scent and electrical signals. 

When it comes to bats, we know they make use of echolocation to navigate and that these high pitched squeaks are too high for us to hear.  In addition to those, they make other vocalisations that we cannot hear without the help of technology.  Now that equipment has improved, it has been discovered that their language is complicated.  It’s actually thought that bats are the mammals with the most complex vocal communicators, after humans.

It’s not just bats that have vocalisations out of our hearing range.  Mice, moths, grasshoppers and other insects all have their own communication which until recently, we were oblivious to.

“The more we learn about animal communication, the more complex it appears to be… Instead of defining whether non-human animal forms of communication fit into the frame of what humans define as ‘language’, we should instead pay attention to what they are saying and begin investigating what language is and could be from there.”
– Meijer

Further reading

Prairie Dogs

“Peace, harmony, and abundance don’t just happen by accident; they happen by design, one step at a time.  You have to know what to bring closer to you and what to keep away.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

Prairie dogs aren’t a species I’m familiar with but I’ve really enjoyed learning about them.  There are 5 species; black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs.  They live in grasslands and aren’t dogs, instead being closely related to ground squirrels.  They live in close knit family groups called coteries, which usually consist of an adult male, one or more adult female and their various children.  The coteries are grouped together, forming a ward, and wards come together to make a colony or town which can be home to thousands of individuals.

Family is important to prairie dogs and they are here to ask you about your relationship to family – literally, how is your relationship with your family and how do you feel about the concept?  Today, we are much more open to the idea of found family and that is fantastic!  Beyond family, prairie dogs are asking you to think about your place and role within the local environment and neighbourhood. 

Coteries have complex tunnel networks, with multiple entrances and different rooms for different activities; sleeping, storing food, getting rid of waste, raising young etc.  Living underground provides them with protection against the environment, protection from predators and space to carry out daily living in safety.

In many ways their set up is akin to ours, and like our species, they are sociable.  About half their live is spent underground in the burrows and when they aren’t there, they are nearby.  They stay close to home and, whilst they live mostly peaceful lives, they will defend their territory.  They are a reminder to us that we can, and should, protect our own boundaries, whether that is literal in the sense of gatekeeping who is allowed into our homes or more metaphorical by protecting our emotional boundaries.  Set your boundaries and maintain them.  Let in only what you want to let in.  And don’t forget to set boundaries around your dreams, your goals and your projects.  Not everything need always be open to comments.  If you have a work in progress and you aren’t ready to share, don’t.

In the morning, prairie dogs leave their burrows to harvest grass, but this is a risky job, so one will feed, while another keeps watch.  This is just one example of how they cooperate with each other for the greater good of the community.  They also groom each other, play fight and even ‘kiss’ upon meeting.  It’s thought that through kissing, oxytocin – a pleasure hormone – is released.  During these greet kisses, they open their mouths and touch tongues for a couple of seconds.  They do this a lot, but male-female kisses are rarer than female-female and female-pups so it’s thought that it helps to reinforce bonding.  It is also thought to be a way of communicating whether you are friend or foe. 

As they stay in the same area their whole life, they are vulnerable to predators – once the predator knows where they live, they know where to find a meal.  To protect themselves, prairie dogs have a large array of alarm calls.  They use different sounds for different dangers and can indicate whether the threat is coming from the air or from the ground.  Further they can describe the threat in detail; if a human is approaching the call includes information about the fact it is a human, what size they are, what colour clothes they are wearing and even if they are carrying a gun.  Their language is made up from verbs, nouns and adverbs and they can use their words in new combinations to reflect new threats.  This language is highly sophisticated and is complemented by body language.  For example, tail flagging – where they way their tails around – and their wonderful ‘jump-yips’ which seem to be an expression of joy, and which look like they are engaging in a full body prayer.

 “When a prairie dog sends out the alarm that a predator is coming she or he packs a lot of information into that call.  Prairie dogs say something like, “Hey! Watch out! Here comes Joe, that medium-sized, brownish coyote, over the ridge on the left, coming towards us at a steady pace.” While they may not use these “exact” words, they communicate pretty exacting information about a potential threat.”
– Jennifer L. Verdolin

Verdolin relates this to communication in human relationships, highlighting the value in being very exact and precise.  Her point is that whilst we think we have communicated a message we may have shared less than we think.  She gives the example of a person asking their partner to do the dishes, they say they will, then the first person gets annoyed because they haven’t been done ten minutes later.  The second person hasn’t meant to annoy them or lie about their intent because they are planning on doing the dishes, just in half an hour.  Learn from the prairie dogs and be precise about your communication, it will save you hassle in the long term.

These animals are also referred to as prairie rats as it was once thought they bred like rats, but this isn’t the case.  They breed only once a year and females are only receptive for about 5 hours a year.  This makes baby prairie dogs seem a bit of a miracle!  More so once you learn that half of pups don’t live long enough to breed themselves. Those that do make it show a tenacity that you don’t see if you just glance at them.

Prairie dogs have an important role to play in the environment around them.  Their tunnel systems create shelter for other animals including toads and rattlesnakes.  The bare patches of ground created by grazing attract insects which in turn are food for a number of bird species.  And of course, the prairie dogs themselves are food for animals such as coyotes and hawks…  Kristy Bly from the WWF claims that at least 136 other species are supported by the activities of the prairie dogs.  They even help to aerate and fertilise the soil, allowing for a diverse array of plants to grow.

In terms of symbolism, the Jicarilla Apache associated the prairie dog with water and thought that they could lead thirsty people to water in times of need.  This association is also found in Navajo culture.

A number of websites took the burrowing aspect of prairie dog life as a call to retreat:

“Prairie Dog…calls me when it’s time to rest, when it’s time to honor the internal quest. I go into retreat so I may see, a way to replenish the potential in me.”
— Jamie Sams & David Carson

Other messages from these animals are about the importance of community, treasuring the small things in life even in the face of strife and the importance of setting strong boundaries.  Given their incredible, complex language system, precise communication is also emphasised here.

I nearly didn’t include this, not wanting to end on a sad note, but unfortunately Prairie Dog populations have plummeted as they have become seen as pests. They have been subject to poison and other methods of extermination. They are shot for sport and, like so many animals around the world, are experiencing habitat loss and destruction.

As we’ve seen, these are highly valuable creatures which provide a huge service to their local area and are giving scientists a fantastic insight into non-human languages. Please share what you’ve learnt about their communication skills – it will help others to see prairie dogs in an intriguing light, as well as helping to break down the myth that only humans can talk.


“I’m sorry, I can’t… I’m hibernating…”

This post was inspired by a conversation with someone, you know who you are – thank you!

I’ve written before about how plants and animals survive the conditions that winter brings, with one well known strategy being hibernation.

A brief period of suspended animation – generally less than a day – is called torpor and researchers are finding that often, what we think of as hibernation, is not the winter long deep sleep that we thought of it as.  Instead, hibernation appears to often be made up of a string of periods of torpor, interspersed with periods of non-torpor which seem to be used to sleep.  Brain waves have been monitored to find this out and suggests that the periods of torpor are actually periods of sleep deprivation.

During torpor, the animal’s metabolism slows down, their body temperature falls significantly, their breathing rate plummets and so does their heart rate.  In bats, for example, the latter can fall from 400 beats per minute down to 11!

But what about humans?  Can we hibernate?  I know I’d love to…

Before we get into the physiological side of things, let’s consider why humans don’t hibernate.  Firstly, our ancestors evolved in tropical climates and so didn’t need to adapt to deal with cold winters and a seasonal dearth of food.  Secondly, when we did migrate to colder climates, we developed alternative methods of survival – buildings, fire, clothes, hunting and farming.

Moving on to the biological side of things… A key reason why we can’t hibernate all winter is that our hearts don’t work if they get too cold; they will stop if body temperature falls below 28 degrees Celsius.  Clearly this is unhelpful when reduction in body temperature is an important characteristic of hibernation – some animals can survive with a body temperature of just 1 degree…

Whilst some people cite our size as a reason we can’t hibernate:

“The fact that large mammals such as bears and even primates, such as the fat-tailed dwarf lemur of Madagascar, can hibernate means that theoretically humans aren’t too big or energy-hungry to enter torpor. Nor does our evolutionary origin prevent us from doing so, as hibernating animals have been found widely across all types of mammal.”
Vladyslav Vyazovskiy

However, most hibernating creatures are small – weighing on average 70g – and the exceptions to this, such as bears, don’t tend to hibernate as deeply and their body temperature doesn’t fall as significantly.

In the run up to hibernation, animals must eat a significant amount and in humans this would result in thickening of the artery walls and would lead to heart disease.  Further, spending more than a week in bed means that human muscles begin to atrophy and blood clots start to form, putting us at risk of other kinds of awful things such as strokes.

And of course there is the issue of waste.  In animals that hibernate, urination and defecation are essentially halted, sometimes through re-absorption which allows for maximum use of nutrients.  Humans cannot do this…

Finally, I want to offer just one more reason why we are not physiologically adapted to hibernate.  Those animals that do hibernate, remove white blood cells from their blood for the hibernating period, storing them in lymph nodes.  This leaves them incredibly vulnerable to immune attacks but it does means that when the body begins to warm up, they will not experience general inflammation.  Humans cannot do this and so the warming up period would put us at risk of kidney damage amongst other things.

So, things aren’t looking good for human hibernation… Having said that, research is being carried out into torpor states, primarily for use in medical situations as well as in space travel.

But what about claims that people have hibernated… Firstly, based on the evidence above, it seems unlikely that they have truly, scientifically hibernated.  Secondly, we may not actually want to hibernate, given that it actually causes sleep deprivation and many more serious issues.

“There are no known cases of natural human hibernation, according to [Kelly] Drew. But she has heard anecdotes about hibernation-like experiences in her research, including the practice of “lotska,” in which Russian peasants a century ago would supposedly endure the harsh winter by awaking only once per day for 6 months to consume a small amount of bread and ale.”
Ben Panko

A key reference to the Russian peasants hibernating comes from the British Medical Journal in 1900:

“At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread, of which an amount sufficient to last six months has providently been baked in the previous autumn. When the bread has been washed down with a draught of water, everyone goes to sleep again. The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and by-and-by sets to work at summer tasks.”

This was said to be a response to conditions which were tantamount to chronic famine and, not having the resources to survive the year, they would use a hibernation like approach in order to eek those resources out.

An episode of QI referenced a group of French peasants who would engage in a hibernation type sleep over winter but all my research into the topic brings me back to the same author.  I’m not disputing the factualness of this, but I did want to mention it as this is how urban myths get spread across the internet – one person says something and it gets repeated and repeated without any corroborating evidence.

“Economists and bureaucrats who ventured out into the countryside after the Revolution were horrified to find that the workforce disappeared between fall and spring. The fields were deserted from Flanders to Provence. Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence. As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practised the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.”
– Graham Robb, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War

As much as the idea of hibernation sounds appealing, I’m now thinking I just need to schedule in some duvet days to get through the dark nights and the cold days…


Blue footed booby

When it comes to the blue-footed booby, magic lies in their feet, in their – unsurprisingly – bright blue feet!  They are a comical looking seabird which have long, brown wings and white plumage as well as a blue bill.

When it comes to pairing up, it’s all about those feet and the bluer the better as it’s a hard colour for them to make so it’s an indication of how healthy the suitor is.  To make sure the girl you’re wooing knows how blue your feet are, you will engage in a mating dance which is all about showing her your magic.  Show your feet, bow long, wings out, give her a gift and show off your feet!  If it’s going well, you might both dance; mirroring each other helps to form a partnership.  Even though you no longer build nests out of twigs, you’ll then try to impress her with your nest building skills and may offer her pieces of nest building material.  If all of this goes your way, you’ll continue your courtship display even after you’ve mated but be warned, your girl isn’t just yours – when you’re away, she’ll flirt with your neighbours.

About half of blue footed boobies have extra relationships but whilst sexual monogamy doesn’t seem important, they are socially monogamous and will raise their family together.  Creating a successful family unit, in partnership, is more important to them than any extra marital affairs.  This might be a call to consider your own views on social and sexual monogamy.  They are not always united, for some people social monogamy might be more important than sexual monogamy but your feelings will be mingled with your feelings about sex and relationships.  This is a good time to remind yourself that different people have different sex drives and different sexual interests and being in a great relationship with someone doesn’t mean that those will automatically match.  Talk about what you consider to be cheating, talk to your partner(s) about your relationships and expectations.

Once they’ve mated, a female will lay her eggs in a shallow depression on flat ground and they like to have plenty of room between their nest and those of others in the colony.  This makes me think of new parents and interfering relatives who all feel like they know best and who crowd in around the mum with no respect for her boundaries…   They also surround their nesting area with guano, just to really get the message across.  I’m not going to suggest you go that far, but if the blue footed booby has entered your life, it might be worth reinforcing your own boundaries.

As the female blue footed booby doesn’t have brooding patches like most birds, she’ll use her webbed feet to incubate her clutch.  When they begin to hatch, she’ll support the eggs on top of her feet and the young will stay there for a month.  Both parents will feed the chicks.  It’s been discovered that the key to a long term relationship is the equal sharing of nest duties, year after year.  Something I’m sure many women around the world would raise a glass to!  In terms of breeding success, young seem to have the best chance in life when one parent is young and the older is old so if you’re looking for your own long term partner, maybe through the idea of ‘age appropriate’ out of the window!  With the caveat that we should still abide by laws of consent and so on…

They are named, clearly, for their blue feet but the word booby comes from Spanish sailors who thought that the way they walked meant they were stupid or foolish.  Despite their clumsiness on land, they are agile in the air and great underwater – judge someone by their skills in their preferred environment.

People don’t always think these birds are real, and certainly their feet can look photoshopped, additionally, the majority of the population is found in the Galapagos Islands – far from most people’s eyes.  It is also probably because of this that I struggled to find much symbolism related to the blue footed booby.  Generally, when I’m researching animals, I will at least find some cultural or symbolic meaning from their natural homeland, but I really struggled with this bird…

There is clearly importance in paying attention to foot health, to communicating through your body and in reflecting on your relationship models.  They are confident and don’t let their comical walk bring them down and that is a lesson we all need reminding of from time to time.  In fact what makes them seem odd and awkward is actually one of their greatest assets and one they have decided to make the most.

Apparently they are symbols of fearlessness but as their main predators are sharks, and humans, I wonder about this.  It’s easy to be fearless when you’ve rarely needed to be afraid…

“The blue footed booby is also a symbol of creativity and dreaming. It might be time to take that dream and make it a reality. The booby is telling you to keep in touch with your creative side. Anything is possible, as long as you can imagine it. Use your creativity to make it happen.”
Free Spirit Meg

As they are agile in water, an element which is associated with emotions, they are able to dive deep into their inner world and are comfortable at navigating their feelings.  So often, so many of us push our feelings down or try to turn them off but that will backfire at some point.  Instead, the booby suggests we get to know our feelings, we feel them and we let them go.

As I couldn’t find out very much about the blue-footed booby, I thought I’d turn briefly to the symbolism of the colour blue.

Blue is said to symbolise trust, loyalty and confidence – all aspects that we’ve seen, to different degrees, when we’ve looked at the booby.  It is a calming colour that apparently slows down the human metabolism and it associated with cleanliness and purity.

“Blue represents both the sky and the sea, and is associated with open spaces, freedom, intuition, imagination, expansiveness, inspiration, and sensitivity. Blue also represents meanings of depth, trust, loyalty, sincerity, wisdom, confidence, stability, faith, heaven, and intelligence.”
Bourn Creative

As there are so many different shades of blue, it can have contradictory meanings dependant on the specific colour.  Light blues are associated with health, healing and tranquillity whereas dark blue is associated with knowledge, power and seriousness.



The flamingo is iconic, highly recognisable and charismatic with its bright cheerful plumage, crooked, spindly legs and that quintessential pose.  These birds of light, with their fiery feathers, naturally occur on five of the seven continents and their name is derived from flame.  I find this interesting – a bird that is often seen as comical is actually incredibly powerful and that is a theme we will come across again as we look into the flamingo in more depth.  There is much more to them that the tropical, amusing symbol of fun.

A key distinguishing feature of these birds is their colour which is due to their diet.  They eat organisms which contain carotenoids which in turn create the shades of pink that the flamingo is known for.  Their babies aren’t pink, in fact they don’t get their bright colouring until they are between two and four years old.  Whilst you might covet a beautiful flamingo feather, you will be disappointed, once shed, they quickly lose their colour.  Not all that glitters is gold.

The flamboyant colour is used to attract mates and not just because it’s striking, but also because it’s a signal that the individual is able to locate great sources of food and is in good health.  Perhaps your own body is trying to communicate with you about your health – when we are stressed or under the weather, there are signs of this that we can see; poor skin, hair loss, nails breaking…

In addition to the plumage, the pose of the flamingo is a key part of the iconic look.  They stand on one leg because it’s easier than standing on two.  Maintaining their one-legged stance has been proven to require very little muscular involvement whereas two legs means balancing which works their muscles harder.  In fact, it is so easy, that even dead flamingos can stand on one leg!  To us it might seem obvious that standing on two legs would be more efficient than one but perhaps this is a call to consider whether we are doing things in our life in the most energy saving ways.  This puts me in mind of the tips and tricks that help those of us with pain and fatigue use to maximise what we can do, eg using a basket to carry things from room to room instead of making multiple trips.

Flamingos also use large flocks to live efficiently.  There is safety in numbers and it means you can spend more time feeding and less time being alert to danger.  The flocks also mean that they can create calm patches in the group, protected from the wind.  To promote group cohesiveness, they will use ritualised movements.  They also use ritualised displays to stimulate hormone production and hence to promote breeding amongst the flock.

They also use vocalisations and posturing to communicate within the group.  When it comes to attracting a mate, flamingos make use of fancy footwork to find a partner.  They take part in a group dance, moving and displaying as a unit.  Typically the oldest or tallest males will start the process and then the rest of the flock – male and females – will join in.  There are nine signature moves which are designed to show off what a great partner they will make.  If a female is impressed by a male then they will mate for life.  This seems like a lot of work but sometimes you need to make a song and a dance about finding a great flamingo to share your life with, or if humans are more your type, then think friends and partners.

It’s also worth celebrating because flamingos breeding isn’t all that easy… there is a narrow range of conditions which are conducive to breeding:

“If there is too little rain, there may not be enough mud to build nests or enough food resources to feed both adults and their chicks.  If there is too much rain, nests can be flooded or washed away, and the diluted standing water supply may no longer be saline enough to support the flamingo’s preferred prey species.  Additionally, flamingos are unwilling to breed unless their flocks obtain a critical mass.”
– Kight

If they manage to produce offspring then the adults (both male and female) provide the chicks with a red substance that is high in fat and high in protein.  This is similar to the milk produced by mammals and also occurs in pigeons and emperor penguins.  They feed this way every 45-90 minutes for the first week and then it gets less regular as the chicks get older.  In sharing this substance, the adults lose some of their pinkness.

So far, everything we’ve seen feeds into the narrative of the flamingo as being soft, gentle and delicate, however this is not the case.  They can cope with incredibly tough, savage conditions.  This includes high altitude wetlands where their legs freeze as the water they stand in turns to ice, only melting when the sun rises.  They can live in very salty, caustic water that would damage human skin and are able to do this because their legs are covered in keratin scales.  They can drink water that is almost boiling and is so hot that they have to hop from foot to foot.

Whilst earlier I said that maybe the flamingo was here to ask you to reflect on what your appearance is telling you about your inner world, it may also be here to remind you not to judge a book by it’s cover.  Yes, the flamingo may look dainty and fragile, but it is extraordinarily tough too!

“Because so few animals can tolerate extremely salty environments or figure out how to collect the tiny particles of food available there, flamingos have been able to exploit this niche virtually uncontested.”
– Kight

Despite being able to tolerate these intense conditions, they are incredibly sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation so often find themselves having to move habitat.  Somehow, possibly to do with barometric pressure, they are able to identify where to move onto with reasonable success.  For example, in Africa, flamingos rely on lakes which are prone to drying out and in Namibia, greater flamingos have seemingly known when rain is due 500km away…

Turning to the symbolism of the flamingo, we find them often used to signify silliness, fun and as a nod to holidays and warm, tropical places.  They have also been an icon of cheesy campness and were used by gay men in the 1960s to advertise their sexual orientation.

For the ancient Egyptians, the silhouette of the flamingo was used to represent the bird itself, the colour red and also the reincarnation of the sun god, Ra.  In ancient Rome it was said that eating flamingos would help in all diseases as well as helping to maintain health.

“Old Islamic texts also indicate that Muslims used flamingos in a variety of medical contexts; sore joints, for instance, were sometimes treated by flamingo-fat ointment or by plasters containing, essentially, liquefied flamingos (obtained by boiling the birds whole for long periods of time), while ear troubles could be cured by the application of pastes made from flamingo tongues.”
– Kight

But perhaps the most striking use of the flamingo was in association with the phoenix.

“Flamingos are regarded as the embodiment of the firebird Phoenix.  This is reflected in its scientific name – the Phoenicopteridae, the Phoenix-winged… The motif of the Phoenix and its descendants embodies the dreams of the people.  In the various cultures and religions, the Phoenix-like birds symbolize rebirth and resilience.”
– Lesser Flamingos: Descendants of Phoenix, Lothar Krienitz

Perhaps the flamingos’ tendency towards large flocks, moving location and ability to survive harsh, seemingly uninhabitable conditions added to their mystic and wonder, seeming to appear out of nowhere, en masse.

“Descriptions of the phoenix’s self-(re)generation call to mind the beliefs of some East African native peoples who used to think that flamingos emerged from the salt pans fully formed”
– Kight

“Like the mythical phoenix for which phoenicopters may have been an inspiration, flamingos have been reincarnated, time and again, in the human consciousness: as a delicious indulgence, a mascot to rally behind, an embodiment of poor taste, and, now, an emblem of awareness of many groups in need – including, sadly, some of the pink birds themselves.  Thanks to their unusual and unique physical attributes, flamingos have always caught our attention and have never failed to impress.  Although they may look delicate and slight, these deceptively hearty birds manage to survive in some of the harshest habitats on earth, and have been doing so for millions of years.”
– Kight

The flamingo puts me in mind of this quote, attributed to Winnie the Pooh:

“You are braver than you believe, smarter than you seem, and stronger than you think.”

Do not let the world underestimate you.  You are tough, you are strong and you are a survivor.


The curious case of the dissolving hymen, and other adventures

I happened to be watching a short video about the human hymen the other day, which is well worth 7 minutes of your day and as well as deconstructing the hymen as a virginity indicator, it mentioned elephant’s hymens.  Which naturally got me thinking… What other animals have a hymen?


Lemurs and chimps have them.  Buffalo and cattle.  Manatees and moles.  Seals and toothed whales.  Rats and cats.  Dogs and bush babies… camels, alpacas, hyenas and horses…

Guinea pigs are the owners of that dissolving hymen of the title.  It dissolves when they are fertile, allowing mating to occur and when they aren’t in season, it grows back.  This means that they can only be vaginally penetrated when they can conceive which seems practical.

In elephants, the hymen only breaks when she gives birth, and then it will regrow.  There is a small hole in it for the sperm to get through and be able to fertilise the egg but because of the angles of the vaginal canal, the penis doesn’t perforate it during sex.

The role of the hymen in non human animals seems to be a bit up in the air at the moment but one suggestion, for marine mammals, is that it keeps water and water-borne foreign substances out of the vagina.  In humans, it’s thought that it has a protective purpose, keeping any urine or faeces out of the vagina until the young girl is continent.  As a girl grows, her hymen changes consistency and shape and becomes less of a barrier and importantly, the hymen is irrelevant when it comes establishing virginity, or not.

It turned out there wasn’t really enough to write about animal hymens, mostly it seems because more effort has gone into researching male genitalia, in humans and other animals…  So I figured I would investigate the clitoris.  All female mammals have one although again, it seems like not much research has been done as its unclear whether they can be used to reach orgasm.

“Although the clitoris is not well studied, there is evidence of larger clitorides – yes, this is the plural of clitoris – in animals in which sex plays an important part in relationship building.”
The Conversation

Many mammals have their urethra running through the clitoris like the penis, and many have a small bone in the clitoris to help it become rigid during intercourse.

Dolphins have a large and complex clitoris.  Hyenas have a 20cm one that contains the birth canal and causes a variety of issues with birthing…  They are a matriarchal society and subordinate females lick the clitoris of higher ranking females as a show of submission and obedience.  Males also do this but there is no reciprocal penis licking as males are right at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Like the hyena, there are other animals that have large clitorides which have been termed pseudopenis’s which I think is unfair…  But anyway, animals which have these include the European mole, some lemurs, binturong and squirrel monkeys.  The female squirrel monkeys use theirs to display dominance within their social group.

But it’s not just mammals, there are some other animals that have a clitoris.  This includes ostriches, some turtles, crocodiles, and lizards and snakes even have two of them, known as hemiclitores!

If you happen to know anything more about the hymen or clitoris of animals, let me know!  I would have loved this post to be longer but I really struggled to find out much…



“Lift your head and look towards where your goal or dream is and start walking towards it.  As you walk, you will meet others along the way who will be willing to assist you.  Take advantage of all that is offered to you, as you will never get to where you want to be on your own.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

The most obvious starting place with the giraffe is the neck, and whilst this may be their most impressive feature, it is also the most vulnerable.  Somethings are both a blessing and a curse.

As the tallest living animals, giraffes have a unique, telescopic view of the world which allows them to spot danger with comparative ease.  Other prey animals like having them around as they are a free watch tower but giraffes only really concerned about lions.  If threatened, they will use their strong, long legs to run away – at up to 35mph. If a mother giraffe is cornered, she can use a well aimed kick to kill a lion.

Back to that neck… despite it’s epic length, it only has seven bones, the same as a human neck which is incredible.  They use their height to eat leaves and buds which are out of reach for other animals.  Males, being the tallest, feed on the highest branches and reach upwards for food, females on the other hand feed on lower branches and bend forwards and thus there is less competition for food overall.

The neck works a bit like a pendulum to help them balance but is also used to establish dominance and fight over females.  The males use their necks in a sort of wrestling, sparring way.  Once a dominance hierarchy has been established, you can tell the dominant male as it will be standing with his head held high and the submissive giraffe will have his head low and will drop his ears.

Mating itself is quick, involving a penis that is over 3 feet long… After sex, the father’s job is done as they play no part in child rearing.  After 15 months, the female gives birth to a baby and does so standing up.  This means that the baby’s first experience of the world is via a 2m drop… This throwing you in the deep end approach may seem intense but it is apparently so that the umbilical cord breaks.

In addition to long necks and long penises, giraffes have long, black tongues which can extend up to 45cm and allows them to get even more of the normally out of reach leaves.  This tongue is used a bit like a hand and can easily strip a tree of the juiciest leaves – which means that the giraffe doesn’t need to visit watering holes so often.  As the tongue is leathery, they can eat prickly leaves, again meaning they can eat things that other animals can’t.

The giraffe is a sort of gardener of the plains as eating leaves stimulates the plant to grow more leaves.  One of their food sources, the acacia tree, engages in chemical warfare – as the giraffe starts to nibble, the tree increases the amount of tannins in its leaves and sends a warning signal to nearby trees.  However, the tannins don’t affect the giraffe, they have saliva which neutralises them.  In response to this, the tree hires ants to help it’s cause and the ants irritate the giraffe by stinging their mouth and nose… Don’t piss off an acacia tree!

As ruminants, giraffes need to chew the cud and spend most of the day doing it, pretty much any time they aren’t asleep.  And they don’t need much sleep… They can get away with sleeping just 5 minutes a day and can nap in 1 to 2 minute sessions, whilst standing up!

They rest during the hottest part of the day and have a coat designed to help with temperature regulation.  The skin patch pattern is unique to each individual and in males, the patches darken over time because of testosterone.  It’s also thought that the skin and hair may repel ticks, mosquitoes and bacteria via secreted chemical compounds.

As with everything in the giraffe, the heart is particularly big and strong.  Over two foot long, it has to be powerful in order to pump blood up the long neck to the brain, whilst defying gravity.

Giraffes have a good sense of smell, both in terms of actively smelling what’s around them and also in terms of having their own odour.  The latter is said to be quite divisive; some people find it pleasant, going so far as to suggest it’s use as perfume, and others despise it.

“Throughout antiquity man has co-existed with the giraffe in its African homeland, exploiting giraffes as a source of food and raw material, revering them as religious symbols, keeping them captive as curiosities and pets, trading them as offerings of goodwill in diplomacy”
– Edgar Williams

Primitive depictions of giraffes feature in early art, and some art from Egypt shows the giraffe facing left and to the north, something that is thought may indicate that the giraffes was seen as a bearer of the sun god.  As such tall creatures, they certainly would see the sun rising before others.

By 2000BC, giraffes were being kept domestically, probably as a curiosity.  In 1500 BC, giraffes were captured and transported to Thebes where they were exhibited in one of the world’s first zoos.  The ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with giraffes, but called them Camelopardalis, or Camelopard, because of the belief that they were an ‘unnatural’ cross between a camel and a leopard.

“The giraffe is the most wonderful, both for the beauty of its form, and the extraordinary manner of its production.  For they say that the giraffe proceeds from a female Ethiopian camel, a wild cow (the Addex, an antelope) and a male Hyena; for in Ethiopia, the male hyena pairing with a female camel, she gives birth to a young one partaking of the natures of both parents: and if this happens to be a male, and to pair in turn with a wild cow the result of this second cross is the giraffe.”
– Timaeus, 260 BC

After the roman empire began to crumble, giraffes were no longer found in Europe and thus their existence was lumped in with that of the unicorn and phoenix, a legend.  Images copied from images copied from images would create some interesting, but not at all accurate depictions of the giraffe!

To 14th century Arabs, to dream of a giraffe meant bad news about finance or property or a wife’s fidelity.  I’m intrigued about why but a quick google didn’t help much…

At various times in history, giraffes have been used as diplomatic gifts including Zarafa who ended up walking from Marseilles to Paris.  In the process, she became a bit of a star!  Once in Paris, she became a crowd drawing sensation with over 100,000 people visiting her.

Throughout the 19th century, many giraffes were hunted and slaughtered for sport and their skins and as the 20th century arrived, it looked as though extinction was inevitable.  Perhaps they would truly be relegated to the realms of dragons and unicorns…  Then the world wars intervened.

Whilst giraffes in zoos didn’t do well – some were affected by bombs and others eaten in food shortages – those in the wild benefited as hunters became soldiers and the attention was directed elsewhere.  After WW2, measures to try and protect giraffes started on a very small scale but would result in saving the species for a bit longer.  Today, the giraffe, with it’s iconic long neck, long legs and long eyelashes is a symbol of Africa, of conservation and of grace.

 “[Giraffes are] a People, Who live between the earth and skies… Keeping a light-house with their eyes.”
– Roy Campbell

Naturally most folklore about giraffes comes from African, including a story about why the rhino is grumpy which happens to explain why the giraffe has a long neck.  It is said that it grew after the giraffe ate some magical herbs.  In stories from South Africa, the giraffe is considered holy, sometimes the holiest animal.  The Thutlhwa word means ‘the honoured one’ or ‘the one to be respected’ and in the Zulu’s language, the name means ‘the one who is taller than the trees’.  They were regarded as being able to see into the future and was a symbol of prophets and diviners.

“The giraffe was one of two animals whose spoor* was regarded as sacred to the Great Earth Mother. It was also the symbol of obedience and of peace.”
African Folklore by Credo Mutwa

*the track or scent of an animal

Beautiful, graceful and individual, the giraffe is a clear symbol of uniqueness, but further, a uniqueness which one is proud of. Stand tall and own all of your wonderful gifts.

There are some obvious ways to interpret the giraffe oracle card; stick your neck out, reach for your goals, see the big picture… But there are some other ideas to think about as well; the importance of a strong, big heart, of seeing what lies over the horizon and of having lofty goals.  But beware of standing still with your head in the clouds, daydreaming instead of moving forwards.  Perhaps my favourite lesson comes from both the giraffe and the acacia tree – don’t be perturbed by a challenge, think of creative solutions and workarounds.