Can Animals Talk?

Animals can pass on all sorts of messages using touch, smells, and sounds, or visual signals, such as light, color, and body language. Some signs are clear, like a gorilla smiling at her baby, or subtle, such as a female wolf spider leaving a trail of silk with her scent to lure males.

Reasons to communicate

wolves hawl
Wolves hawl. Photo: NATGEO

Make an impression
Wolves howl to declare their territory, to call to each other, and to show they are part of a pack.

Find a mate
Polar bears in the vast Arctic wilderness won’t bump into each other by accident, they need to leave behind a trail of smells.

Defend your territory
Tigers urinate on trees to mark their territory and avoid competition.

Warn of danger
Prairie dogs have a range of warning calls to tell others what the threat is, and how fast it’s approaching.

Care for young
A chick taps its parent’s beak to say “Feed me! ”

Intimidate opponents
A male gorilla beats its chest to show how big and strong it is.

How to: read the animal signs

hippopotamus yawns
Hippopotamus yawn. Photo: Flickr
  1. Its a sign of threaten if a hippopotamus yawns to show off its teeth.
  2. Even more worried if it splashes or scoops the water to add to the effect.
  3. If you notice the hippo is shaking its head, lunging forward and then rearing back, prepare to flee.
  4. When you hear roaring and grunting it is time to run away!

Cool Call

The howl of a coyote reveals its identity, its gender, and how it is feeling.

Causing a stink

Lemur. Photo: pixabay

Male Madagascan ring-tailed lemurs compete for mates by trying to outstink each other.

Most animals (except birds) give off chemicals known as “pheromones”. These trigger a reaction in other members of the species and can even affect how their bodies grow.

Once given off, pheromones can travel very long distances when carried by the wind.

Leaving chemical messages behind is a good way to let other animals know you’re in the neighbourhood.

A guide to making faces

Much like humans, chimpanzees use facial expressions to communicate with each other.

Fear grin
This is a non-threatening signal used to diffuse an explosive situation.

chimpanzee fear grin
Chimpanzee fear grin. Photo: GMA

By pouting its lips, a chimp expresses anxiety, frustration, or distress.

chimpanzee pout
Chimpanzee pout

Play face
An open mouth is a sign that the chimp wants to play.

chimpanzee play face
Chimpanzee play face

Keeping in touch

elephants communication
Elephants communication. Photo: Flickr

Touch is used by social animals such as ants, spiders, and crabs, and especially mammals and birds that care for their young.

Bugs vibrate plants to communicate with other bugs, burrowing animals make the ground vibrate, while alligators produce a deep sound that can travel more than a kilometer in still waters.

Licking and grooming keeps a mammal family clean, but also shows affection.

Scout honey-bees perform a complicated “waggle dance ” direct other members of the hive to a good patch of flowers. Wing vibrations pass on the message even in the dark.

Making a noise

Amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals combine lung power, and vibrating or echoing body parts, to produce an amazing range of cries and calls.

Fish scrape their gills together, birds flutter their wings, while insects buzz, squeak, and click by vibrating wings or rubbing body parts against their hard outer skeleton.

Low sounds travel furthest and forest animals often have deeper calls than creatures living out in the open.

Birdsong travels up to 20 times further in the early morning when the air is stiller and cooler than it is in the middle of the day.

Highs and lows

Sounds are pressure waves traveling through the air. When they disturb the air particles close to us, the vibrations are picked up by ears and translated back into sound. These vibrations are measured in Hertz (Hz), 1 Hz is one vibration in a second. The more vibrations there are, the higher the sound.

Elephants rumble at 8 Hz

Human ears hear sounds from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.

Dogs can hear sounds up to 45,000 Hz.

Dolphins communicate with sounds well over 100,000 Hz.

Moths can hear sounds as high as 240,000 Hz.

Showing off

Japanese crane dance
Japanese crane dance. Photo: Flickr

Coloring and pattern are used by most animals to tell male from female. Different markings also help avoid confusion when similar species live in the same habitat.

Body language is great for scaring off predators or attracting a mate, such as the intricate courtship dance of the Japanese crane (pictured). Intelligent species use body language to deal with complicated family relationships.

Flashing signals on and off attract more attention, such as a sudden display of peacock feathers or the flash of the brightly colored patch of skin under an anole lizard’s neck.

I see what you are seeing

This poison dart frog’s colors say: “Don’t eat me – I’ll poison you!”

poison dart frog
Poison dart frog. Photo: pixabay

The firefly’s bright colors tell predators it tastes bad and should be left alone.

Firefly. Photo: Terry Priest

The male leader of a troop of mandrill has a vivid red stripe on his nose, reminding the rest of the troop who’s boss.

Mandrill. Photo: pixabay

A skunk’s black and white colors warn of its foul-smelling spray.


A male frilled lizard fans out a huge flap of skin to show females how attractive he is.

frilled lizard
Frilled lizard. Photo: Flickr