Chatty Nature
Nature, Science

Chatty Nature

Communication in the Animal World
Mikołaj Golachowski
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time 15 minutes

Psychologists claim that singing to babies gives them a lifetime of mental fortitude and strengthens their emotional bond with their parents. We still pale in comparison with zebra finches, who – by singing to their eggs – instruct their future chicks whether they are to be large or small, and how quickly they should grow.

Almost all land-based vertebrates make sounds. A cat meows when it wants to attract attention, chirps involuntarily while observing birds on the balcony, and purrs when it wants the stroking to continue. Cows moo, sheep bleat, hens cluck and snakes hiss. Even Zygmunt the Russian tortoise – who has been living at my home for almost 30 years and is usually rather introverted – grunts passionately while making love to his favourite pot in the spring. But the meaning of these sounds can vary greatly. No matter how much I like Zygmunt, I doubt that he’s fully in control of the sounds he’s making in that situation (let him who is without sin cast the first stone), but the female cat who shares our flat definitely tries to communicate something to me.

ilustracja: Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Some animal noises have no social significance. If experiencing strong and unexpected pain, animals yelp or whine even when they’re alone – just like when we smash a hammer into our thumb, we use four-letter words even though there’s nobody around (probably all the more readily and loudly if we’re alone). Of course when we’re not alone, the sounds of our suffering will attract someone to help us, so even involuntary noises are a form of communication in gregarious animals such as wolves or humans, which is why evolution has preserved them in us. Utterances can also work outside of individual species. A snake, crocodile or lizard will hiss in warning at any potential enemy, just like a dog will growl at another dog, as well as at a human or a dangerous-looking cauliflower.

But although scientists haven’t been able to find another species apart from us whose system of communication could be called a bona fide language, some of the ways animals communicate are astonishing in their complexity and the level of detail in the information they pass on. Examples can sometimes be found in the most unexpected candidates.

ilustracja: Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Advice through the shell

Justin Gregg’s fascinating book Are Dolphins Really Smart? starts by enumerating the

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On meadows, in bushes, under water and up trees – nature is seething with desire.

In one of his poems, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote of nature that it is “red in tooth and claw”, and this phrase became a popular symbol of the Darwinian fight for survival as the ruthless principle of evolution. I dare not presume what it really is that nature drips with, but – although the vision of bloody animal struggle excites the imagination – its role can be overestimated. Constant battle is less important in the natural world than love. Not necessarily lyrical love – very much the bodily kind. Or, to put it bluntly, sex.

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