How do animals communicate?

By: Jessika Toothman  | 
© 2010
Key Takeaways
  • Animals communicate using various methods such as vocalizations, body language, chemical signals and bioluminescence.
  • Examples include whale songs, wolf howls, firefly flashes and the waggle dance of honeybees.
  • Noise pollution from human activities can disrupt animal communication, forcing species to adapt their methods to be heard.

Animals might not be able to speak or master advanced language techniques, but they certainly have other ways of communicating. Whale song, wolf howls, frog croaks, bird chips -- even the waggle dance of the honeybee or the vigorous waving of a dog's tail -- are among the panoply of ways animals transmit information to each other and to other denizens of the animal kingdom.

Species often rely on verbal and nonverbal forms of communication, such as calls; non-vocal auditory outbursts, like the slap of a dolphin's tail on the water; bioluminescence; scent marking; chemical or tactile cues; visual signals and postural gestures. Fireflies and peacocks are classic examples of brilliant bioluminescence and impressive visual displays, respectively. Ants use chemical cues (in a process called chemoreception) to help guide their foraging adventures, as well as for other activities like telling friend from foe, connecting with new mates and marshalling the colony's defenses.


When it comes to acoustic communication, not every member of a species is just alike. Animals in different regions have often been overhead sounding off in different dialects. For example, one study found that blue whales produce different patterns of pulses, tones and pitches depending on where they're from. Some bird species are the same way. And what about those birds that live on the border between territories of differing songsters? They often become bilingual, so to speak, and able to communicate in the singing parlance favored by each of their groups of neighbors.

Communication between species can play important roles as well. One study suggested that the reason Madagascan spiny-tailed iguanas have well-developed ears -- despite the fact that they don't communicate vocally -- is so they can hear the warning calls of the Madagascan paradise flycatcher. The two species have nothing in common except for the fact that they share a general habitat and raptors like to snack on them. So when an iguana hears a bird raise the alarm among other birds, it likely knows to be on alert for incoming predators, too.

However, as noise pollution interferes with animal communiqués all across the globe, many animals' ability to communicate effectively comes under fire. Increased shipping traffic over the last century has dramatically affected the transfer of whale song around the ocean basin. Studies have found that songbirds, too, suffer from noisy (albeit terrestrial) urban environs. Some species have had to modify their singing styles, producing songs that are louder and shriller, in order to be heard above the clamor. Pumped up volume usually leads to simpler and somewhat inferior styles of singing that female birds seem to find decidedly less sexy.

For more information on all things animal, visit the links on the next page.


Frequently Asked Questions

How do animals use chemical signals to communicate?
Animals use chemical signals, known as pheromones, to communicate various messages such as marking territory, signaling readiness to mate and identifying individuals. For example, ants use pheromones to create trails to food sources, while dogs mark their territory with urine.
How does noise pollution affect animal communication?
Noise pollution, caused by human activities such as traffic and industrial work, can interfere with the ability of animals to communicate effectively. This can lead to difficulties in finding mates, navigating and avoiding predators, forcing some species to alter their communication methods, like increasing the volume or frequency of their calls.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • "Animal Communication Research." Bioacoustics Research Program Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (3/10/2010)
  • "Ants - Communication." (3/10/2010)
  • "Bottlenose dolphins." Sea World. (3/10/2010)
  • Carey, Bjorn. "Ship Noise Drowns Out Whale Talk, a Threat to Mating." Live Science. Feb. 20, 2005. (3/10/2010)
  • Carey, Bjorn. "Whales Found to Speak in Dialects." Live Science. Jan. 3, 2006. (3/10/2010)
  • Foer, Joshua. "Congo Chimps." National Geographic. February 2010. (3/10/2010)
  • Fountain, Henry. "One Reason Lizards Have Ears? To Eavesdrop Perhaps." New York Times. March 4, 2010. (3/10/2010)
  • Hill, Amelia, ""Urban life is stressing out our songbirds." The Observer. June 29, 2008. (3/10/2010)
  • "How do dolphins communicate?" The Dolphin Communication Project. April 26, 2008. (3/10/2010)
  • Keim, Brandon. "Rudiments of Language Discovered in Monkeys." Wired. Dec. 7, 2009. (3/10/2010)
  • Lee, John. "Basic Bioluminescence." Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology University of Georgia. Nov. 10, 2008.
  • Linden, Eugene. "Can Animals Think?" Time Magazine. March 22, 1993. (3/10/2010)
  • "Our Research: Past and Present." The Dolphin Institute. (3/10/2010)
  • "Trunk call: How elephants communicate using a 'secret language'" Daily Mail. Feb. 23, 2010. (3/10/2010)
  • Wade, Nicholas. "In Monkey Babble, Seeking Key to Human Language Development. Jan. 11, 2010. (3/10/2010)
  • Uscher, Jennifer. "The Language of Song: An Interview with Donald Kroodsma." Scientific American. July 1, 2002.
  • White, Thomas. "Between The Species."Loyola Marymount University. August 2009. (3/10/2010)