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