The Language of Animals

  • 04/03/2019
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Have you been watching Blue Planet II? We certainly have at the office, and its inspired us to delve a little deeper into the language of animals, from the clicks and whistles of the dolphins or the howling of wolves to inter-species communication, animals can often offer surprising methods of talking to one another.

Perhaps the most obvious way of communicating for an animal is by using body language. A dog’s bark can only really indicate 3 emotions, the lowest being a means to intimidate and the highest being a sign of excitement; however, a dog’s body language can signify over 20 different messages. Great White Sharks can offer subtle hints as to their mood and whether you can approach them by the way they move, but it takes a trained eye to understand these signs. Body language is present throughout almost all the animal kingdom.

The smarter the animal, the more intelligent and varied the means of communication. Whales and dolphins are among the most intelligent animals on the planet – particularly when it comes to emotion. Killer whales have calls unique to the whale, and each pod has a slightly different way of communicating, suggesting that Killer Whales have a form of dialect. Bottlenose Dolphins have a whistle that they produce to identify themselves – almost like a name. Humpback Whales are the only type of whale that can communicate by singing; these songs can last up to 30 minutes, can be heard for around 100 miles, and can feature refrains that almost sound like lyrics in a chorus… but little else is understood about whale and dolphin communication.


Language in primates, the most intelligent group of animals on earth throws up some interesting debate. Great Apes are capable of a large amount of ‘gestures’ that can be used to communicate, and similarly to whales and dolphins, these gestures can vary from group to group. However, things get interesting when sign language is introduced to the brightest of these monkeys. Washoe was the first non-human to communicate using American Sign Language, and would eventually go on to use 350 different signs and become capable of producing small sentences. The argument is that the chimpanzees perform these ‘behaviours’ to receive rewards, and as the famous linguist Noam Chomsky eloquently put it "Humans can fly about 30 feet - that's what they do in the Olympics.  Is that flying?” But, upon learning that a caretaker’s baby had died, Washoe replied with the sign for ‘cry’; is that not a sign of acquired language? The debate seems finely balanced.

There are other means of communication in animals, like scent-marking, chemical cues, bioluminescence and tail slapping in certain fish… perhaps animals speak more languages than we give them credit for.


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