Sunday, April 24, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: Can Humans and Animals Understand Each Other?

Hey there, CSF fans, followers, and supporters!
Anna Bishop here with a cool Zoosemiotics (animal communication) question from Ella Nelson, age 11, who wants to know if humans and animals understand each other.

Excellent question! The answer is everyday and never: it depends on the animal, of course!

If you were to scold your dog for getting into the garbage, he might not understand all of your words, but he would know you were angry because of your face, voice, body language, and gestures. He might feel ashamed, because he knows it is something he should not do.

However, if you were to scold a chameleon, you might as well scold the wall. Chameleons, in the wild, do not communicate with one another, so their understanding of communication is essentially non-existent. They may be afraid of the loud noise, but they would not understand that you were trying to tell them something.

Communication is how we understand other members of our species, and work together. Most of the animals we can communicate with, communicate with each other in the wild. Take wild dogs, for example: they form packs, play, fight, and hunt with one another. It makes sense that they can understand people a bit. It is important for their survival to understand if other pack members are upset, excited, or in danger. Without a pack, wild dogs have a difficult time surviving, and if they did not pay attention to the feelings and needs of their pack, they might get kicked out of their pack, or left behind. They could die without a pack to protect him. So most dogs who were bad at communicating did not live to tell the tale.

There is also the complex idea of communication itself: we, as people, communicate mostly with spoken words and sometimes with hand symbols. We also observe body language: we can tell someone is upset just by looking at their expression and posture.

You’ve probably had a dog sniffing your face and legs. It may seem weird to you, but that’s how many animals communicate: smelling the bodies of other animals tells them important information like the age, sex, health, and even mood of other animals. Since we don’t use smell to communicate, we are different from many other mammals like dogs, cats, and rodents.

Interestingly, human communication with spoken words is most similar to that of dolphins, whales, and birds. These animals have languages and dialects. If a Costa Rican parakeet is surrounded by Amazon parakeets, the Costa Rican bird will change his own dialect to match those of the birds around him. The logic is, when in Rome, do as the Romans do!

Speaking of birds, have you heard of Alex the parrot? He was an African Grey parrot trained and observed in studies by animal cognition scientist, Irene Pepperburg. He was able to count, understand simple questions, and differentiate objects by shape and size. The fact that he was able to understand questions in a language invented by another species shows that parrots can do more than just mimic words. Here is a video of Alex with his trainer: Quite the brainy bird.

One African Lowland Gorilla, Koko, has become a celebrity for her amazing sign language abilities. She was able to tell us about her childhood in the wild, her father’s death, her desire to have a baby, and her love of kittens. Using a variant of American Sign Language (ASL), she can tell us what she knows and how she feels. She became best friends with Robin Williams, and told her keepers she was very sad when she heard about his death. This is a video of her with her teacher and friend of thirty years, Francine Patterson:

Of course, Koko isn’t a pet, but she is still an animal that can have conversations with another species, while occasionally incorporating signs she knows by instinct. Here is a picture of her making common signs.

I shall end with another common animal companion: the horse. Horses communicate almost entirely through body language, and can tell if you are nervous, excited, or upset. They communicate with herd members by movements in their heads, necks, legs, and tails. When someone rides a horse, it is crucial that the rider and the horse have a decent level of trust, and at least one of them is experienced. Riders communicate to their horses how fast to go and in what direction, by gently pressing their legs into the horse’s side. Once the horse is well trained, he will respond to these cues appropriately. A horse learns to do tricks, like barrel turns and jumps, by paying attention to his rider's commands. In turn, the rider must recognize when the horse is tired, frustrated, and needs a break. A rider that ignores his steed’s body language is just as troublesome as a disobedient horse.

So hope that answers your question, Ella! Great to hear from you and stay curious about animals! Ciao for now!

About the Author: Anna Bishop is a sophomore at Sturgis Charter Public School and critter enthusiast. She is part of the Teen Advisory Board for the CSF, and her interests include zoology, zoo-psychology, ethology, raising insects, linguistics, and trying new recipes.


  1. You could go even deeper and look into something called animal communication, if you are open to that kind of thing!

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