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Weirdest Ways Animals Communicate

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
A lot of talk to our pets, even though we know they'll never respond. But that doesn't mean that animals don't communicate with each other. Most species have some way of 'talking' amongst themselves, whether it's through the sounds they make, the smells they give off or the behaviours they show. But, some are weirder than others... In this video, we look at the weirdest ways in which animals communicate!
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The Weirdest Ways Animals Communicate


Communication is key. Cliché or not, it’s true. Without communication, we, and every animal around us, would accomplish very little. We’d be loners adrift in a scary world.

That said, some forms of communication are just downright bizarre.

Humans are far-and-away the most complex animals on the planet, with the most complex communication methods. Like many mammals, we communicate primarily through vocalization. Since the origin of speech at least 50,000 years ago, language has evolved to the point that there now exist between five and seven thousand different languages.

We take it for granted, but human speech is truly a bizarre creation. Effectively, it’s a system that assigns meanings, often abstract and complex, to more or less arbitrary sounds, which we produce by obstructing the air currents through the same opening we use for respiration and food. We even use it to communicate with ourselves. Viewed from a certain perspective, you could argue that humans have a weird method of communication, and that many animals must look at US funny.

Of course, speech isn’t the only human form of communication. There’s also writing, which has been around since at least 3500 BCE, when ancient Sumerians used pictography for accounting purposes. There are hand gestures and sign languages. And there are facial expressions. We all know what a smile, frown, or the dreaded death glare mean when we see one.

Such nonverbal communication - death glares included - are present elsewhere within the mammalian kingdom. Gorillas, for example, are masters at it, employing various unique hand gestures and facial expressions to convey their needs and desires. And, just like us, they can give a pretty mean glare. They also employ more forthright forms of nonverbal communication. In the face of rivals or other potential threats, a gorilla may beat his chest, or charge forward, a clear and unambiguous expression of menace.

Even non-primates, like cats and dogs, rely on nonverbal communication. Anyone cohabiting with a cat or dog knows that we quickly come to understand our pets. For example, when a dog paws at the front door, it’s a clear means of asking to be let out. Cats, although stereotypically more aloof, also have clear ways of communicating. A cat rolling over to expose its belly shows that it’s content and feels safe in your presence. You can communicate that you also feel safe around your furred friend by making eye contact and slowly blinking. Since cats are defensive creatures, they don’t like to close their eyes in the presence of danger. In response, your cat may slowly blink back, and voilà, two entirely separate species of animal have successfully communicated an idea without opening their mouths.

Non-verbal communication is widespread in the animal kingdom and often surprisingly simple to understand. But it can also get weird - as with dancing.

The peacock spider, for example, drums out a beat with his legs, and when he has the attention of nearby spiders, enacts a dance with the hopes of impressing a special lady. If successful, the female with dance in return. Similarly, when Clark’s grebes, a species of North American waterbird, want to find a mate, they perform a brilliant dance. They first attempt to synchronize their movements and actions, and when that’s successful, they run on water together for up to twenty seconds, making them one of the only known animals with the ability.

But perhaps the most famous dancers of the animal kingdom are birds-of-paradise. A male six-plumed bird of paradise will first clean up his area to make it more presentable, and then engage in an elaborate courtship display, waltzing around the area while bobbing its head and showing off his colorful feathers in an attempt to woo potential romantic partners. Many other birds-of-paradise species have similar rituals.

While the steps of these seductive dances are a little strange to us, they’re still within the realm of the understandable. After all, it's not that different from the average night out at a bar or club.

Other animals use colour with more complexity. Many cephalopods, for example, can change color to communicate with members of their own species and others. Squids and cuttlefish in particular use this ability to woo mates, or to show that they’re already spoken for. But it’s also used to ward off rivals and potential predators. In fact, when one squid changes color to threaten another, it can prompt a colorful stand-off in which the two cycle through chromatic displays until one backs off. Some are even able to display a pleasing, attractive color on one side, and a more aggressive, threatening color on the other to warn off other suitors. Octopuses, on the other hand, use their color changing abilities more for camouflage and defensive purposes. When an octopus suddenly turns white, with black around their eyes, and takes on more defensive stances, it communicates that they feel threatened, and might attack.

Again, colour changing is certainly unusual from a human perspective, but is still relatively understandable. While we don't intentionally do so, we do subtly change colour as a form of communication. Our faces can turn beet red when we feel embarrassed, or when we’re angry and shouting at someone. Like cephalopods then, our colour changes can signify either attraction or aggression.

But then there’s animal communication that a lot more difficult to relate to . . . as in the odd collaboration between planthoppers and day geckos. Planthoppers feed on plant sap, and day geckos love the taste of honeydew - the sugary, viscous liquid that exits the anus of tree sap eating insects. So a hungry day gecko will approach a drinking planthopper, and casually nod its head. The planthopper will often oblige and happily shoot honeydew directly into the gecko’s mouth. This leaves us with the unusual scenario of two different species successfully communicating a very specific, and equally unusual request.

Another bizarre form of communication within the animal kingdom is electro-communication. The idea of communicating through electricity seems entirely alien to us, given our own methods of producing electricity and the difficulties that arise in trying to harness it. Oddly, this is a communication format of the aquatic variety.

Weakly electric fish like the Peters’ elephantnose fish and the black ghost knifefish can generate electric fields up to one volt in wattage and use these to communicate with other weakly electric fish using their electroreceptors. Once an electroreceptor receives an electric signal, the fish will interpret the signal frequency and waveforms to deduce what the sender is trying to communicate. Weakly electric fish are currently the only known group to carry both electric generators and electroreceptors, making them the only animals on Earth with the ability to communicate through electricity.

Weird ... but there’s still weirder.

The white rhino uses poop-centric methods of communication. Making use of communal defecation sites called middens, a rhino isn't above walking up to this giant, three-meter wide pile of bio-waste and taking a good, long whiff. It isn't just for kicks either. The midden acts as a type of rhino message board, as the poop contains all sorts of biological and societal information. For example, it can tell a sniffer who the boss is of that specific area. In fact, the dominant male will often deposit directly in the centre of the midden and kick around his waste both to spread his smell around the midden and to get his business stuck on his feet so that others can recognize the scent wherever he goes. The midden can also tell which poopers are healthy and which are sick, and even which are ready for mating and children.

Whether verbal or nonverbal, communication among animals can be truly bizarre. But then again, that’s nature for you. A little beautiful, a little odd.
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