Are Animals Saying More Than We Think?

Woot, whup, arrrrrp! To the untrained ear, this typical whale ditty may sound more like an unintelligible frat chant than a formal dinner invitation. And yet, a growing body of research indicates that whales—and many other of our non-human brethren—have far more to say than we realize.

While yelps, tweets, and hoots do often sound like “blah, blah, blah,” you can thank self-aggrandizing social media chatter, not wildlife, for that! From giraffes’ moonlit melodies to whales with accents, we’ve rounded up some ear-opening intel on what different grunts, clicks, and howls could actually mean—and how that knowledge can in turn be used to improve wildlife conservation as a whole.

Animals Say the Darndest Things—for Good Reason

“The world is a really noisy place,” comments Bill Zeigler, senior vice president of Animal Programs at Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo. “It’s noisy because all the animals are talking to each other.”

So…what exactly are they saying?

While any given species’ “talk” may sound all the same to us, many have a decidedly broad range of vocalization, which they use to communicate a range of messages. For example, cotton-top tamarins make 38 unique sounds—and there’s gotta be a reason for each one, right?

Science has just begun to scratch the surface of what all these sounds mean, says Zeigler. We do, however, already know some key reasons animals make their lovely chirps and trills (and yes, sometimes annoying brays and shrieks).

Here are the top five most popular expressions, as overheard in basic animal communications study:

• “Let’s get it on!” Face it—reproduction is powerful stuff. Attracting a mate, and/or detecting one’s receptiveness, has inspired all forms of life to create their best vocalizations. Male humpback whales, for example, produce a series of vocalizations that create a song that makes lady whales positively swoon. Speaking of underwater romance, Zeigler adds that alligator bulls bellow and grumble to attract females—and warn away the competition.

• “Watch out, here comes trouble!” Newsflash, courtesy of Zeigler: that crazy-sounding squirrel isn’t actually barking at you when you walk by his tree; he’s barking about you to everyone else in the woods. Indeed, many animals have more nuanced ways of vocalizing alert than a one-danger-fits-all yip or yawp. For example, vervet monkeys, according to research published in Nature, have distinctive cough calls for aerial or ground threats (sort of like, ‘Ahem, eagle! Cover up!’ or ‘Achoo, cougar alert!’).

• “You’re gonna hear me ROAR, maybe…” Combined with complex body language, social animals like wolves communicate hierarchy Grunts and growls help communicate who’s top dog—while whimpers help establish who’s not. This all helps keep the peace, by generally avoiding outright physical conflict as well as communicating territorial ownership.

Come play with me, ma! (Dave Kemp)
Come play with me, ma! (Dave Kemp)

• “It’s you and me, kid.” From bats to apes, the parent-child relationship inspires a whole other set of communications. Bat roosts, where a single square-foot section of space holds hundreds of bat pups squeaking in unison, would seem an impossible place for moms to find their babes—and yet they do, recognizing the tiny but unique voice of their own pup. Social animals like chimps, dolphins, and wolves all engage in “small talk” with each other, adds Zeigler. Think, ‘No, kids it’s not time to play, it’s nap time,’ or even, ‘Hey, I just had a good meal and am gonna take it easy.”

• “Soup’s on.” Animals that hunt for their food as a team often communicate strategy through sound—wolves and coyotes are well-known examples. Dolphins also communicate audibly as they hunt together, using barks and quacks to relay strategic updates as they herd food.

We’ve established that many animals do have some beans to spill. But, Zeigler says, they’re not just spilling it amongst themselves.

Peace, Love, and Cross-species Understanding

Okay, maybe a little less peace and love, and a little more sheer survival.

Still, as Zeigler explains it, in the wild, lots of animals have adapted ways to understand each others’ communications.

strange-companions-D-Simmons
I couldn’t help noticing you, noticing me… (D. Simmons)

“Birds are often sentinels, understood by many species,” he says.

“Many mammals use alert calls from birds. If they see something strange, they chat about it a lot and let each other know. Groundhogs and squirrels, they listen to this and they learn.”

Crocodiles are another example of a language crossing species lines. “I had a large collection of different types of animals in Miami, with a number of crocodile species in a single breeding facility. If one hatchling made a distress call, all the females of all species responded to it. When it comes to distress of young kids, any female will respond.”

‘Tis true, animal vocalizations are generally based on basic survival needs. But that doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had, either.

Cheep Shot: 5 Surprising Wildlife Vocalizations

Most animals aren’t quite as communicative as BBC’s inimitable interpretations…

…and yet, they really can surprise us, like, for example, so:

1. Rhinos squeak: “What’s really funny,” says Zeigler, “is when you get big animals like a black rhino, which can be more than 3,000 pounds, and their sounds are little squeaky noises. A bigger animal doesn’t always equal bigger noise.”

2. Dolphins find their own unique voice…: Dolphins have “signature calls,” that others in their social group recognize as uniquely their own, says Zeigler. For example, one may effectively call, “‘Hey I’m Bill. I’m here!’, and the other animals within the group would respond with, ‘Oh look, Bill’s here!’ Plus, they have long-term memories and will recognize those signatures even after distance or space separates them.

Watch out! Here comes that big dude in the green jacket again! (Dave Kemp)
Watch out! Here comes that big dude in the green jacket again! (Dave Kemp)

3. Prairie dogs gossip about us: Vocalization analysis of prairie dogs in Arizona and New Mexico reveals that alarm chirps detail the physical appearance of specific threats—including their human admirers. While we’re cooing over their adorable postures and vying for eye contact, prairie dogs are informing their pack about our size, shape, and even color of clothing.

4. Whales stay in touch: Sound travels well in water, Zeigler says, which is extremely important for animals with annual migrations, like gray or blue whales. It’s not just limited to one small group that is traveling close together—they emit low-frequency sounds to tell other whales who are miles away, “‘We’re here,’ ‘We found food there,’ and so on.

5. Giraffes hum: Forget everything you thought you knew: Giraffes aren’t mute. Zeigler says that while most of their conversations happen through body language, they do make a startle sound like a warning noise. And just this month came new research that reveals that giraffes hum at night. (Get an earful here.)

Finally, to answer your question, yes, we do know what the fox says.

Howl Cool Is All This New Intel?

Decoding any species’ communication is no easy feat. It takes years of isolating sounds, mapping behavior, and monitoring tiny nuances in pitch and frequency to draw even the simplest seeming conclusions. And everything changes depending on the environmental conditions, too.

“As technology advances, we’re becoming better able to decipher different tones—down to the amount of warble within each note,” explains Zeigler. But the field of study is still quite new.

Parrots-D-Simmons
Silly humans, you think we are mimicking you just to please you — but we have our own evolutionary reasons for it! (D. Simmons)

“In the future, we’re hoping we might be able to talk to animals—by breaking down their songs and noises, and understanding why and when they communicate,” he continues. “Then we may begin to duplicate and begin to have a conversation. It sounds far-fetched, but it’s a possibility.”

That possibility is an important one, as Zeigler sees it. By mapping out these communications, we can better understand how different species are adapting to environmental changes.

And with that knowledge, we can in turn advance habitat protection strategy.

Improved wildlife conservation everywhere? Now that’s worth braying about.

Myth Outcome: Myth busted

Animal sounds are more than just noise. “There’s so much animal communication going on all the time,” says Zeigler. “We might not understand it, but their counterparts sure do.”

One Green Thing

Step outside and listen—as a nature lover and a citizen scientist.

Kosson_OGT Stop Listen
Listen up, y’all! (Photo: Evelyn Dunn Steiner; Design: Beth Kosson)

As you listen, remember it’s not just noise. “It’s the song of life,” says Zeigler. It’s a chance to form greater appreciation for our wild and wonderful planet—and the incredible language of life that helps connect us all.

PLUS, bonus: Your attention can also contribute directly to conservation efforts when you share your observations as a citizen scientist! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an incredible data animation of how individuals’ input from across the country more than 130 million so scientists can see actual bird distribution every week of the year – in incredible detail.

So, before we go all sappy on you (erm, too late), we’ll conclude with a few of our fave apps and links to help make sense of the chatter:

The Multiplier Effect

If 1,500 people from 100 different countries contribute their observations to the next Great Big Backyard Count, we’d create a record-breaking 150,000 bird checklists that scientists will then use to strengthen international habitat protection policy.

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