Dallas Zoological Society Partnership : Zoo Science

Ways Animals Communicate

Topic Overview
Quick Facts
Elephants, whales, okapi, hippopotamuses, and rhinoceroses communicate in frequencies lower than what humans can hear, less than 20 Hz. At these frequencies, called infrasonic, humans can only feel vibrations.
Electric eels communicate using electricity. The dominant male emits the most extreme frequency, highest in some groups and lowest in others. The dominant female emits at the opposite extreme.
Many mammals can hear high ultrasound frequencies, up to 60,000 Hz compared to the 20,000 Hz limit of humans.
Baby Herring Gulls stimulate the parent to regurgitate food by tapping on a bright red spot on the parent’s yellow bill. Unfortunately, this encourages baby gulls to tap on all brightly colored objects, leading them to accidently swallow pieces of glass or plastic on the beach.
Hampsters have glands on their flanks that allow them to leave a scent by rubbing against objects or the sides of their habitat.
“Duetting” refers to the back and forth singing of courting male and female birds.
Milk snakes mimic the color of poisonous coral snakes in order to falsely communicate danger to potential predators.
The scientist John Lilly mistakenly convinced himself, and many others, that dolphins could mimic human speech. He claimed to demonstrate this by slowing down audio tapes of dolphin sounds.
Some frogs silently invade a louder frog’s domain, hoping to intercept a female responding to this frog’s calls.
Begin the Lesson
Animals communicate in a variety of ways that are often not apparent to humans. We are familiar with the sounds of birds, the bark of dogs, the meow of cats, and even the songs of whales. However, there are methods of communication that only sophisticated scientific observation and research can identify – for example, the dance of the honeybee or the mating patterns of cuttlefish. It is important for humanity to understand and appreciate the ways animals communicate in order to limit our interference with their survival and help preserve biodiversity.
Whole Class Introduction to the Lesson
You will need at least one computer with Internet connectivity and a projection device, a classroom with more than one computer, or access to a computer lab.� This introduction will take approximately 10 minutes to complete.
Each culture has created its own words to mimic animal sounds. These words are onomatopoetic, imitating the sound they are describing. Begin with a class discussion of what noises animals make. Ask the students to write these sounds in words, to “transliterate” the sounds into the English language.
Sample Questions:
What does a dog say?
What does an elephant say?
What does a bullfrog say?
What does a camel say?
Do fish speak?
Go to Derek Abbott’s Animal Noise Page at
Consider the wide difference among transliterations of animal noises into different languages. Ask the class why they think animal sounds are represented so differently among cultures. Do cats in Japan really speak a different language than cats in the United States?
Next discuss communication other than auditory. Sound only travels short distances and disappears after a brief instant.
How do animals leave messages for other animals that last longer than vocalizations?
How do animals communicate over large distances?
How do insects such as ant colonies communicate?
As part of the introduction, you may want to review some of the glossary terms in advance of students going online. At this point you can launch the WebLesson as whole-class activity using a projection device, or you can assign students to work individually or in teams in a computer lab.
WebLesson Sites
People communicate in a variety of ways, from speech, writing, television, and the Internet to body language, art, dance, and song.

Animals also communicate. Birds rely and song and dance to identify themselves to one another, to find mates, and to ward off predators. Cats rub their heads against our skin to leave a pleasant scent of ownership or spray unpleasant scents on furniture to mark their territory. Dolphins click and whistle, using echolocation to distinguish friends from predators.

Scientists who study animal communication record and mimic sounds and behavior to try to determine how and why animals communicate with one another. They also study how animals communicate with humans, using sophisticated techniques to interact with species from cockroaches to primates.

Imagine that you are snoozing outdoors on a hammock and awaken surrounded by sounds of wildlife. The sounds you hear would vary depending on whether you were at the local park, on a tropical beach, in the rainforest, or on a desert rock. Sounds are the most common way for animals to communicate over long distances. What would the creatures be saying if their vocalizations could be translated into English?
Lesson Pages
Nature Works – Communication
Must See Bird Of Paradise Mating Dance
Primary Source
Animal Diversity Web: Frog Calls
Rich Media
NOVA Online | Tales from the Hive | Dance with Bees
Rich Media
Audio Gallery for Discovery of Sound in the Sea
Rich Media
Dr. Dolittle Project
Rich Media
Ant Trails Directional 12 16 04
NOVA | The Last Great Ape | Kanzi the Bonobo | PBS
Rich Media
Nature: Puzzles & Fun
Rich Media
Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot
Conclusion & Project
Just like humans, animals need to communicate in order to find food, escape predators, mate, and interact socially. The many forms of communication extend far beyond the animal sounds we hear in our environment. Animals use auditory frequencies both lower and higher than what humans can hear, allowing sound to transcend background noise and travel long distances. Animals also employ tactile, visual, and chemical communication methods that are often invisible to the human observer. Through sophisticated observational techniques and digital analysis tools, scientists are able to classify and study animal communication. This extensive knowledge is providing humanity with the tools necessary to help conserve and protect the biodiversity of our fragile planet.
Choose an animal and imagine that you suddenly have the ability to act and communicate like that animal. For example, if you chose a cat you would have the ability to mark your territory with pheromones to keep friends and families from disturbing your stuff. Write a description of your day as a human with animal communication traits. Describe getting ready in the morning, eating breakfast, finding your way to school or to an activity, communicating with friends, etc. Be creative in your choice of settings and scenario.
American Sign Language (ASL) - dominant form of sign language used by the deaf community in America
acoustic - uses sound to communicate
advertisement call - sound made to attract a female
alpha male - dominant male in a group
anthropogenic - caused by human activity
auditory communication - communicating with sounds
bioacoustics - field of science that combines biology and acoustics
camouflage - ability of an organism to blend in with the surrounding environment
chemical gradient - rate of change in chemical concentration
courtship - process by which mature individuals of a species become mating pairs
cyborg - cybernetic organism; organism that is a combination of natural and artificial systems, often included in science fiction stories
digital signal processing - analysis of signals such as sound by computers
domestic - animal that lives with and is cared for by humans
feral - animal that has escaped domesticity and returned to the wild
forage - act of searching for food
inter-species communication - communication between individuals from two different animal species
lexigram symbols - symbol used to represent a word
mating - pairing of opposite sex animals to produce offspring
objective analysis - analysis that is free from any subjective influence such as human bias
olfactory communication - communicating through smell by leaving scents from olfactory glands
pheromones - chemicals that trigger a behavioral response from another member of the same species
pigment - chemical that changes the color of a plant or animal cell
round dance - dance of the honeybee when the food supply is near
spectrogram - plot of sound frequency against time
tactile communication - communicating through touch or contact
trackball - ball in a socket that has sensors to detect the ball’s rotation
ultrasonic communication - communicating with frequencies of sound higher than are audible by humans (> 20,000 Hz)
visual communication - communicating with traits or behaviors that other animals can see
waggle dance - dance of the honeybee when the food supply is far
wild - animal that lives in its native habitat
zoosemiotics - study of animal communication