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Biology LibreTexts

45.6C: Animal Communication and Living in Groups

  • Page ID
    14208
  • Animals communicate using signals, which can be chemical (pheromones), aural (sound), visual (courtship displays), or tactile (touch).

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Differentiate among the ways in which animals communicate

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • Animals need to communicate with one another in order to successfully mate, which usually involves one animal signaling another; the energy-intensive behaviors or displays associated with mating are called mating rituals.
    • Animal signaling is not the same as the communication we associate with language, which has been observed only in humans, but may also occur in some non-human primates and cetaceans.
    • Animal communication by stimuli known as signals may be instinctual, learned, or a combination of both.

    Key Terms

    • pheromone: a chemical secreted by an animal that affects the development or behavior of other members of the same species, functioning often as a means of attracting a member of the opposite sex

    Innate behaviors: living in groups

    Not all animals live in groups, but even those that live relatively-solitary lives (with the exception of those that can reproduce asexually) must mate. Mating usually involves one animal signaling another so as to communicate the desire to mate. There are several types of energy-intensive behaviors or displays associated with mating called mating rituals. Other behaviors found in populations that live in groups are described in terms of which animal benefits from the behavior. In selfish behavior, only the animal in question benefits; in altruistic behavior, one animal’s actions benefit another animal; cooperative behavior occurs when both animals benefit. All of these behaviors involve some sort of communication between population members.

    Communication within a species

    Animals communicate with each other using stimuli known as signals. These signals are chemical ( pheromones ), aural (sound), visual (courtship and aggressive displays), or tactile (touch). These types of communication may be instinctual, learned, or a combination of both. These are not the same as the communication we associate with language, which has been observed only in humans and, perhaps, in some species of primates and cetaceans.

    A pheromone is a secreted, chemical signal used to obtain a response from another individual of the same species. The purpose of pheromones is to elicit a specific behavior from the receiving individual. Pheromones are especially common among social insects, but they are used by many animal species to attract the opposite sex, to sound alarms, to mark food trails, and to elicit other, more-complex behaviors. Even humans are thought to respond to certain pheromones called axillary steroids. These chemicals influence human perception of other people. In one study, they were responsible for a group of women synchronizing their menstrual cycles. The role of pheromones in human-to-human communication is still somewhat controversial and continues to be researched.

    Songs are an example of an aural signal: one that needs to be heard by the recipient. Perhaps the best known of these are songs of birds, which identify the species and are used to attract mates. Other well-known songs are those of whales, which are of such low frequency that they can travel long distances underwater. Dolphins communicate with each other using a wide variety of vocalizations. Male crickets make chirping sounds using a specialized organ to attract a mate, repel other males, and to announce a successful mating.

    Courtship displays are a series of ritualized visual behaviors (signals) designed to attract and convince a member of the opposite sex to mate. These displays are ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. They often involve a series of steps, including an initial display by one member followed by a response from the other. If at any point the display is performed incorrectly or a proper response is not given, the mating ritual is abandoned and the mating attempt will be unsuccessful.

    image

    Courtship displays: A male peacock’s extravagant, eye-spotted tail is used in courtship displays to attract a mate.

    Aggressive displays are also common in the animal kingdom. As, for example, when a dog bares its teeth to get another dog to back down. Presumably, these displays communicate not only the willingness of the animal to fight, but also its fighting ability. Although these displays do signal aggression on the part of the sender, it is thought that they are actually a mechanism to reduce the amount of fighting that occurs between members of the same species: they allow individuals to assess the fighting ability of their opponent and thus decide whether it is “worth the fight.”

    Distraction displays are seen in birds and some fish. They are designed to attract a predator away from the nest that contains their young. This is an example of an altruistic behavior: it benefits the young more than the individual performing the display, which is putting itself at risk by doing so.

    Many animals, especially primates, communicate with other members in the group through touch. Activities such as grooming, touching the shoulder or root of the tail, embracing, lip contact, and greeting ceremonies have all been observed in the Indian langur, an Old World monkey. Similar behaviors are found in other primates, especially in the great apes.