How Do Animals Communicate?

There’s little doubt that animals communicate very well both between themselves and with humans. But how exactly do they do this? A closer look reveals an amazing and sometimes hidden side to our fellow animals that we don’t always see.

Behavioral Communication

Many animals have distinct social behaviors. A classic example is honeybee dances. When a scout bee finds a good source of pollen, she returns to the hive and starts dancing. By waggling her abdomen, turning different directions and buzzing her wings, she tells the other bees the location of the pollen stash.

To add to the challenge, the dances are done inside the hive, which is dark. The assembled bees can’t even physically see the dancer. Regardless, the directions are still clearly communicated through air vibrations and other subtle means.

Horses also have very complex behavioral communication. The position of a horse’s tail, legs and ears can have a variety of meanings, from pleasure to alarm. And drawing their lips back can mean they’re feeling sexually aroused, checking out an interesting smell or giving you a warning to back off.

For all animals, including humans, mating behaviors may be the most important part of life. The white-fronted parrot takes this to a new level. These parrots actually engage in mouth-to-mouth kissing, which is rare in the animal world. After a couple has kissed and warmed up to each other for awhile, the male will vomit into the female’s mouth. The female takes this as a sign of deep intimacy.

Horses s

Communication through the Senses

1. Smell

Odor is probably the most common type of animal communication. This is done through pheromones, chemicals that animals produce to carry messages between them. These messages can relate to information such as territory, identity, food, sex, social cues or danger. Pheromones can be secreted in urine, feces or from special scent glands.

Insects may have the most effective long-range pheromones. A female moth’s mating pheromones are so strong a male can detect them from miles away. The male’s antennae have scent receptor cells that are finely tuned to pick up a female’s scent.

Researchers from Georgia Tech found that pheromones also play a significant role in coral reef. Coral are able to release a chemical that tells small fish called gobies that harmful algae is starting to grow on the coral. The gobies will respond within minutes and come to eat the algae. This process helps keep the reef healthy and in balance.

2. Touch

Touch between animals is usually very purposeful. Apes and monkeys will hug and touch mouths on meeting. Some species will place a hand in a newly arrived monkey’s mouth, then the other monkey will reciprocate. It’s thought to be a sign of trust and goodwill between monkeys.

Many animals nuzzle each other, such as cats and rhinoceroses. Research suggests that the majority of species nuzzle simply as a way to show affection and to strengthen or establish social bonds.

Elephants rely a great deal on touch. They use their trunk, ears, tusks, feet, tail and even general body rubbing to convey a broad range of information. In fact, an elephant’s trunk contains some of the most sensitive tissue ever studied. A trunk can be used to encourage a calf, play with a family member, explore a potential mate or reassure another when facing a predator.

Lions nuzzling s

3. Sound

Scientists were previously baffled at how elephants seemed able to communicate with each other when traveling miles apart. Distant groups had been observed traveling in parallel lines to each other. And when one group changed direction, so did the other.

Researchers at Cornell University discovered that the deepest elephant sounds we hear as grunts or rumbles are only small overtones of much lower sounds that are so powerful they can be heard by other elephants for miles through forests or across deserts.

An interesting example on a smaller scale is the fact a male mosquito can only “hear” the sound of a female mosquito’s wings beating. His antennae are specifically designed to pick up only the vibrations of her wings. Researchers have even been able to attract male mosquitoes to a tuning fork with the same frequency.

4. Sight

Body size, shape, colors and patterns can carry a great deal of meaning. The patterns on a female dragonfly help males to identify females of the same species. Researchers have been able to fool males by painting females of different dragonfly species.

Cuttlefish, close relatives of squid, are known for their ability to quickly change color to camouflage themselves against predators. But researchers at Macquare University in Australia found they had another color-changing trick. When a male cuttlefish is courting a female and sees another male approaching, he can change one half of his body to resemble a female cuttlefish’s coloration. To the eyes of the approaching cuttlefish, he looks like a female, not a potential male adversary. Whereas, on the side where the female is, he still displays his male colorings. This allows him to ward off other males and continue his courting advances in peace.

Dragon flies s

5. Taste

Snakes are able to use their tongue to “taste” scents of nearby prey, dangerous predators or potential mates. They flick out their forked tongue, which picks up miniscule chemical particles. These are gathered into a special organ in the roof of the snake’s mouth that analyzes the scents collected.

Octopuses are strangely outfitted to taste their environment. They can have up to 1,800 suckers on each of their eight arms. These suction cups contain highly sensitive chemoreceptors, which are nerve endings that react to different chemicals. This allows octopuses to detect prey, determine any changes in their surroundings and identify other octopuses as friend or enemy.

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Christine J.
Christine J3 years ago

Really interesting article. Aren't those cuttlefish clever!

Marina Polazzo
Marina P3 years ago

Thank you for sharing

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Roxy H.
roxy H3 years ago


Elizabeth O.
Elizabeth O3 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Rebecca Gouge
Rebecca Gouge3 years ago

I didn't know most of this. Very interesting. Thanks!

Valerie A.
Valerie A3 years ago


Marija Mohoric
Marija M3 years ago

Interesting, thanks

Dominika Rychlik
Dominika Rychlik3 years ago


Alison A.
Alison A3 years ago

Thanks for posting.