Animal Communication

Animal communication refers to the exchange of information between organisms belonging to the kingdom Animalia. In this article, we will take a closer look at the methods of communication and the reasons behind communication. Animal communication occurs for many reasons within species (interspecies) as well as between species (intraspecies).

Animal Communication Animal Communication

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Table of contents

    In order to communicate you need a sender and a receiver. Additionally, both the sender and receiver need to have ways to send and receive the information. Animals have adopted a wide variety of communication methods to ensure they can exchange information despite environmental challenges. Communication underwater poses a different challenge than communication in the air, underground, at night, when running away from a predator or when seducing a potential mate.

    In this article, we will explore the methods of animal communication as well as their function.

    Forms of communication in animals

    The forms of communication between animals can be categorized into four main types:

    • Visual

    • Auditory

    • Olfactory

    • Tactile

    These methods are aligned with the five basic senses: vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, where taste and smell are combined into the olfactory category.

    This categorization makes sense when we consider that an animal requires a sense to receive information; without ears, you cannot hear an alarm call.

    Most species will use a combination of communication methods suited to their environment and lifestyle. Communication can be either deliberate or involuntary. Forms of deliberate communication (for example, an alarm call) are the result of a sender making the conscious decision to relay information to a receiver. Involuntary communication can both be intentional and unintentional.

    For example, bright colors on a mallard is a form of involuntary communication that is intentional, the mallard wants to attract a mate but has not made a deliberate decision on when to display its colors. An example of involuntary communication that is unintentional is when those same bright colors on the mallard are picked up by a predator rather than a potential mate.

    Visual communication in animals

    Visual communication refers to the exchange of information when that information is received through vision.

    Common examples are body language, facial expressions, color markings, or the patterns created by Japanese puffer fish when attracting a mate, and many more.

    Visual communication is the most common form of communication and is especially relied upon in species that have relatively good eyesight. This is logical when you consider that their main communication tool matches their strongest sense.

    An example of this is frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds that rely on discerning colors to find ripe fruits. These species often rely on vibrant color markings in their feathers or beaks for communication as well. Through evolutionary pressures, their eyesight has been continually fine-tuned to not only find the best fruits but also to communicate effectively. Vibrant colors can be a warning or an invitation, and the ability to communicate clearly pays off in the form of continued offspring.

    Visual communication is typically immediate, meaning that the information is being sent right at that moment. A wolf baring its fangs to a pack member to establish hierarchy is information that is being sent and received simultaneously.

    Whereas a scent mark is information that can be received weeks or months after it has been sent.

    Additionally, visual communication is generally for relatively short distances and targeted toward an individual or group. This has implications for the context of the information. A wolf might target its baring of fangs to a subordinate pack member that gets too close but not toward a dominant member or when the subordinate wolf moves away.

    Auditory communication in animals

    Auditory communication is the exchange of information when that information is received through hearing.

    Common examples are territorial calls, mating calls, alarm calls, echolocation and more.

    Similarly to visual communication, a stronger reliance on auditory communication can often be found in those species that have a strongly developed sense of hearing.

    The typical songbird has a much wider range of frequencies it can hear and produce when compared to for example a bird of prey. Like visual communication, auditory communication is immediate, the information is sent and received simultaneously (technically at the speed of sound) and can be broadcasted over farther distances (usually for territorial purposes). Most forms of auditory communication are non-targeted and apply to all that can hear.

    However, again depending on the context, targeted auditory communication is also possible (barking at the mailman).

    Chemical Signals in animal communication: Olfactory

    Olfactory communication is the exchange of information when that information is received through scent and taste.

    The olfactory nerves in the nasal cavity decipher information by absorbing tiny molecules of whatever scent the nose is inhaling. The taste buds on the tongue also decipher information by coming into contact with whatever enters the mouth and share the same airways as the nasal cavity.

    This connection in the airway and the similarity in the way information is deciphered results in both senses working together for olfactory communication.

    Olfactory communication can be targeted to an individual (e.g. in self-defense) or a group (e.g., scent marks). Species that utilize olfactory communication benefit from the fact that olfactory communication can transfer information long after the sender has delivered their message. Additionally, olfactory communication can convey a large amount of detailed information simultaneously.

    For example, a single scent mark can fulfill several defined functions such as: conveying the sender's reproductive status, indicating their territories, and serve as a landmark.

    Flehmening is an example of a behavior designed to receive olfactory communication. When flehmening, an animal curls back their upper lip to transfer scents into the vomeronasal organ which the then brain uses to translate the scent into information.

    Animals also produce chemicals to transfer information through the olfactory tracts with the specific goal of altering the behavior of the receiver. These chemicals can be divided into a few main classes such as pheromones, hormones, and allomones whilst also being given terms such as synomones, kairomones, interomone, and more, based on their functions. These chemicals can be used when seducing mates (pheromones), in self-defense (allomones), or unintentionally by a predator (kairomones).

    Chemicals are somewhat unique in animal communication because senders do not always make the conscious decision to send the message. Chemical communication is often automatically run by the organism, bypassing the decision-making process. This has led to some cases where the sender can even suffer detrimental effects from their own chemical communication such as with kairomones.

    Kairomones is a term used for chemicals that predators have evolved into recognizing when identifying prey.

    For example, insects finding host plants or mosquitos finding your legs.

    Tactile communication in animals

    Tactile communication is the exchange of information when that information is received through touch. This form of communication is most common among species with well developed social structures and hierarchies.

    Common examples are grooming, huddling, rubbing or headbutting, and more.

    Another interesting form of information exchange that can be classified under tactile communication is foot stomping seen in elephants. Elephants stomp their feet to send a series of seismic vibrations which can be received far beyond the range of auditory communication.

    This unique behavior developed as an adaptation to maintain complex social structures over large distances.

    Animal communication examples

    At its essence, animal communication occurs because the transfer of information to influence your environment is a crucial tool for survival and reproduction.

    Reasons for animal communication include finding a mate, establishing dominance, defining a territory, securing resources, self defense, alarm calls, and many more.

    We will explore the more common reasons of communication below.

    Mating rituals

    Some of the most common and flamboyant forms of animal communication are mating rituals. The goal of a mating ritual is to find a suitable mate for reproduction. These forms of communication are usually tied to an individual's fitness levels where the fitter individual performs the best mating ritual. This results in most mating rituals being either physically demanding (a complex dance), a testimony to one's health (having bright colors), or an indication of one's skill (building an excellent nest or collecting the most resources). This results in an evolutionary positive feedback loop where the fittest individuals reproduce and foster the next generation of fit individuals.

    Dominance displays

    Dominance displays are another common and often flamboyant form of communication. The goal of a dominance display is to secure a resource and outcompete rivals. Due to the severe lack of affordable healthcare in nature, many species opt for a non-physical form of dominance display. This type of communication again centers around the ability to show one's fitness in order to surpass your peers.

    However, physical dominance displays can turn into physical contests where a fight establishes the hierarchy.

    Territorial communication

    Territorial communication includes signals such as scent marks or territorial calls with the goal of informing all nearby members of the same species that this is the senders' territory. These communication signals can also apply to certain resources.

    For example, elk bulls will bugle to inform other bulls that they have already claimed a group of females and the competitor needs to stay away.

    Resource communication

    Resource communication refers to signals made with the goal of attracting a targeted audience (offspring, mate, family group) toward a food or water source.

    Well-known examples are honeybees 'dancing' instructions to a flower patch or hyenas whooping to inform their clan members of a fresh kill.

    Resource communication is mainly performed by species with highly developed social structure.

    Bonding communication

    Bonding communication refers to the various ways in which animals strengthen their bonds. This can be tactile such as grooming or headbutting, but also vocal such as purring or when a lioness calls her cubs. Bonding communication plays a vital role in establishing and maintaining strong bonds within a group as well as a well-established social hierarchy.

    Alarm calls

    Alarm calls are signals communicated to indicate threats. Whilst alarm calls are mostly interspecies, the evolutionary drive to react to another species' alarm call has proven so strong that most animals recognize them and respond accordingly.

    An interesting anomaly is the fork-tailed drongo bird (Dicrurus adsimilis) which mimics the alarm calls of several other bird species, raising the question of why? Not only does learning multiple alarm calls require valuable time and energy, but making various alarm calls before retreating to safety seems to be to directly increase the drongo's own survival chances.

    Types of animal communication: context and meta-communication

    The motivation behind and the type of animal communication also depends on the context. Animals with well-developed social structures are known to give meta-communication signals.

    For example, when dogs play-fight they will initiate the play through meta-signals that essentially say ''what follows is play''. Then, although the sender might be sending aggressive signals the receiver knows the sender is only playing.

    Animal Communication - Key takeaways

    • The forms of communication between animals can be categorized into four main types: visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile.
    • Visual communication refers to the exchange of information when that information is received through vision.

    • Auditory communication is the exchange of information when that information is received through hearing.

    • Olfactory communication is the exchange of information when that information is received through scent and taste.

    • Tactile communication is the exchange of information when that information is received through touch. This form of communication is most common among species with well developed social structures and hierarchies.


    1. "The Vomeronasal Organ". Archived from the original on May 11, 2022.
    2. C. Kost. Chemical Communication Encyclopedia of Ecology. (2008)
    3. Marc J. Klowden. Communication Systems. Physiological Systems in Insects (Third Edition). (2013)
    4. Nonhuman Michelle Deverell. Communication. Encyclopedia of the Neurological Sciences. (2003)
    5. Caitlin E. O’Connell-Rodwell. Keeping an “Ear” to the Ground: Seismic Communication in Elephants. (2007)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Animal Communication

    What is the most common form of communication for animals?

    Visual communication is the most common form of communication.

    What animals use communication?

    Whilst nearly all species utilize some forms of communication, the more complex a species' social structure, the more it it will rely on communication.

    How does animal communication work?

    Animal communication is the exchange of information through visual, auditory, olfactory, and/or tactile signals.

    Can animals communicate with other species?

    Yes. This is called intraspecies communication, for example when a cat hisses at a dog to communicate 'back off!'. Communication within the same species is called interspecies communication.

    What are the 4 types of animal communication?

    The four types of animal communication are:

    • Visual
    • Auditory
    • Olfactory
    • Tactile

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What are the 4 types of communication?

    Elephant foot-stomping is generally what type of long range communication?

    Bright coloration is what type of communication?


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