If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Types of animal communication

Animals use various methods to communicate, such as sound, chemical signals, touch, visual cues, and body language. Sounds can warn of danger or attract mates. Chemical signals, like pheromones, guide species to food or mates. Touch and movement, like mating dances, convey information. Visual cues, like color and patterns, can attract mates or warn predators. Each method has its unique benefits and challenges. Created by Brooke Miller.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- So let's talk a little bit about types of animal communication or different ways that animals can communicate with each other. In one way, at least the most obvious way for me, is that they can communicate to each other with sound. So, dogs can bark, birds can sing. This bird in particular looks like it's making a whole lot of noise. And although animals don't have language, per se, the sounds that they create can convey a lot of information. For example, different animals have different mating calls that are used to attract a mate. And animals can also make warning sounds or sounds to warn other members of the same species that a predator or some kind of danger has entered into their area. And although when we think about auditory information, we usually think about it as being produced by the mouth of an animal, it's important to keep in mind that this isn't always the case. Crickets and grasshoppers rub their legs together to make noise that attracts a mate. And we have this rattlesnake here, and the warning signal that he gives isn't one that he makes with his mouth or with any kind of vocal cords. It's a shake of his tail. There are a lot of benefits for using sound as a means of communication. First of all, it's really fast. You can get a lot of information out really quickly. It also allows you to get information to lots of different members at the same time. On the other hand, auditory information isn't very private. Some species of monkeys will emit a warning sound to let the other monkeys in their group know if a predator has entered into their area. And while this alerts all of the monkeys to the appearance of their predator, it also lets the predator know that they're no longer hidden and also exposes the monkey that originally made the sound. Animals can also communicate through chemical signals or olfactory signals, so using smell as a means to communicate or gain information from the environment. For example, even if food is out of sight, a rat can often track it down by smell alone. Animals can also release scents as a means of communication, and these scents are usually referred to as pheromones, which are often used to help attract a mate. But they can also be used to help guide other members of a species to food. Think of the line that an ant follows in order to find food. It's following the scent trail that has been released by other ants. And before when we were talking about sound, we mentioned how animals could emit a warning call to let other animals know if a predator was in their midsts. And one of the ways that they could tell if a predator is there is to use smell. So they can detect the scents of other animals in their environment. And while sound communication tends to travel really fast, chemical signaling tends to be a lot slower. It might not be picked up on right away. But at the same time, it can also be a lot longer-lasting. So scents can stick around in the environment. However, because they linger, it means that chemical signaling can be pretty noisy. And I'm gonna put that in quotes 'cause that's kind of a weird word to use when we're talking about olfactory signals and not sound signals. What I mean when I say that it's noisy is that there could be a lot of chemical signals in a given area. So just like it can be hard to hear what a single person is saying in a room full of shouting people, it's possible that chemical signals can also get pretty jumbled when there are a lot of them in a single environment. Animals can also use somatosensory communication. So they can communicate through touch and movements and other things related to somatosensation. And I think a great example of this is mating dances. And if you want to see a really great example of this, I would go to YouTube and look up the Superb Bird of Paradise, who does this amazing, kind of bouncy dance in order to attract a mate. But movement can also be used to convey other information. For example, bees do a complicated dance in order to communicate information about food location to the rest of the hive. Touch can also be used to facilitate group and pair bonding. For example, birds often cuddle or preen their mates, which is something that we also see in apes and monkeys. They tend to groom each other, or they tend to pick insects out of each other's fur. Animals can also use body language to convey information. So facial expression can be used to convey emotion. Dogs might snarl or show their teeth when they're threatened. They tend to perk up their ears if they're alarmed or put them down and back when they're scared. And there are a number of other different types of somatosensory communication that I didn't even know about before I went to make this video. One of which is seismic communication. An example of this would be the movement of a bug in a spider's web. And that signals the spider to investigate and then find the food. There's also electrocommunication, so there are certain fish who can generate electrical signals that can aid in communication. At the same time, these signals can also be detected by predators who use them as a way to find food. Animals can also use visual cues to communicate. And I feel like there's a lot of overlap between this type of communication and the type of communication that we just talked about before: somatosensory communication. So before I mentioned that some animals do complicated dances in order to find a mate. And of course there's a visual aspect to those dances. And here's a pretty well-known example. Here's a peacock who has its feathers extended, and it's doing this in order to attract a peahen. And I feel like that's the most well-known example of a visual display for mating. But there are many others as well. So down here we have a bird who has puffed up its chest, and then it shakes its head back and forth quickly as a way to attract a lady bird. But visual cues can do a lot more than simply help an animal attract another animal. So I have another example over here, another bird example. Apparently I'm really into birds today. And this is a herring gull, and herring gulls have a really interesting means of visual communication through color. You'll notice that this herring gull has a bright yellow beak, but it also has this red dot at the end of the beak. And this red dot is actually really useful for the herring gull when it comes to feeding its young. So it kind of acts as a large "poke here" button, and when the herring gull has just fed and it returns to its young, the baby herring gulls will actually peck at this red point, and that stimulates the parent herring gulls to regurgitate their food for the young to eat. And of course there are other examples of color communication. There are many frogs that display warning colors or bright colors that signal to other animals that these frogs are poisonous or toxic. Related to this is the idea of mimicry. For example, monarch butterflies are toxic to birds and they're colored in a very specific way. But there's another type of butterfly called the viceroy butterfly, and this one isn't poisonous to birds the way that the monarch is. But the patterns and the colors on its wing are very similar to that of the monarch. And so this coloring actually provides the viceroy butterfly a lot of protection, because it communicates to other animals that they're toxic, even though they're not. But as much as I find it interesting how animals can use visual cues to communicate with other animals, I also find it interesting how they can use visual cues to deliberately not communicate. For example, through camouflage. Let's take a look at this picture here. And I know it looks like just a pile of sticks and leaves, but there is actually a frog in this picture, and it is very well camouflaged. And I'm about to point out where it is, but before I do that, if you're interested in making yourself really frustrated, enlarge this picture and pause this video, and take a moment to see if you can find it. So hopefully you've taken a second to look for the frog. And congratulations if you were able to find it, but do not worry if you didn't, because I didn't either. But you can actually see that it is right here. And so now let's take a look at this frog now that we've greyed out the background. Just by looking at this frog, you can tell how well it blends into its background. Its coloring and shading are nearly identical to the leaves and sticks surrounding it. And you can see how this coloring and the shading would help this frog to avoid predators. And I've mentioned a number of types of animal communication here, but I want you to know that there are a lot more, and I just don't have time to talk about all of them in this video. There's bioluminescent communication, so think about how fireflies glow to attract mates. And there's also gaze following or other social cues like looking where someone else is looking. And this is important because it provides animals with a silent way to signal the location of food or a predator. So like I said, there are lots more examples of animal communication, and if there's one that I've left out that you find to be particularly interesting, maybe write about in the comments so that other students can see it and benefit from it.