How do animals communicate among themselves? Do they have a language we don't understand or just basic communication? What roles do motions, scents and colors play? And why can't they use human language?

In Disney's latest movie Zootropolis, animals walk on two legs, wear clothes, ride the train, work different jobs, and of course, talk to each other in English. Obviously, the world portrayed in the film does not exist in reality - the world on which it is based, ours, would be completely different if we were not able to communicate effectively with each other. Of course, even animals communicate with each other - as any person who witnessed an encounter between two dogs, for example. Nevertheless, our language is very different from the cries of animals. So what makes human language so special?

Humans and other animals

Human language is based on two principles. One of them is of course vocabulary - a list of combinations of sounds and syllables agreed upon by all the speakers that represent a particular object or idea. The other is grammar and syntax - algorithms are built in the mind of every language speaker allowing them to attach words to each other in infinite ways to express any idea that comes to them. This allows people to tell each other what happened a year ago, to plan something together to do in a month, to transmit information discovered by a third person in another country, the examples are endless – they may even speculate on how the language they are using has developed.

Most animal communication, however, is based on the demonstration of mood or intention of the parties. A cat purrs when it is pleased, hisses when it is about to attack and makes a wailing when in the vicinity of a female who is in heat. None of these calls are expressed in other situations, unlike human language where the same word, like "cat" for example, carries a similar meaning in different contexts; "My sister has two cats" or "my sister’s cat scratched me."

But maybe among our relatives, monkeys and apes, there is something similar to the beginning of language - sounds they make express not only the situation, but can refer to objects or certain animals. The first evidence of this came from the vervet monkey that is found in East and Southern Africa. Already some 35 years ago, researchers discovered these monkeys make different warning calls whether they see a tiger, an eagle or a snake. While a general warning call, may stem simply from fear (and is therefore not different from a cat hiss). The monkeys also react differently when they hear the different calls: they run up the trees in response to the call for "tiger", they look up when they hear the "eagle" call, and look down in response to the "snake" call.

Since then, many studies have been published that show different species of monkeys and apes making sounds relating to particular concepts: the Tamarin monkey shouts different warnings when it notices various predators, the capuchin monkey and chimpanzees call different sounds in response to different kinds of foods, and the list goes on. Similar studies were also conducted on birds, and it was argued that crows and even chickens use calls relating to certain food types. In rare cases, it has been identified that animals also make a combination of several calls in a certain order - some researchers believe that this is the beginning of syntax. Campbell's monkeys, little monkeys living in West Africa, use only six basic calls but they can put them together in different ways that could be "sentences" of sorts, which they call in certain situations. New research on songbirds published in March 2016 suggested that Japanese great tits not only make specific calls with certain meanings, but also combine them to make meaningful sequences. The meaning of "call A, followed by call B " is different from "call B, followed by call A".

Is this really a language?

Along with the release of more and more such studies, also comes the increased response of skeptics who claim there is no real link between animal calls and words from the human language, even if the calls relate to an object or an animal. One of the notable comments is the arbitrary nature of words. There is no connection between the word "cat" and animals with whiskers, aside from the arbitrary decision made by English speakers. And therefore the word "cat" has other names in other languages; "gato" in Spanish and "biralo "in Nepali. In addition, babies do not know which sounds go with which concepts, they are learning from the adults around them. It is not clear at all if this is also relative to the “words” of animals. The vervet monkeys, for example, live all across Africa, and yet the calls for an eagle, a tiger or a snake from the Ethiopian population are the same as those used by the South African population. Even the young monkeys, apparently, do not learn the calls from their parents, but know straight from birth the suitable calls for some predator. There are other calls, such as those of songbirds and whales that the young do learn from the adults in their group, so in different populations, we do find different calls. But in actual fact, these voices, apparently, do not indicate a particular concept.

Also, it is not clear how the animal controls their calls or if they are able to decide when to make a sound. Even humans make sounds of this nature, innate and uncontrollable. When we get hit, for example, it is very difficult to stifle one’s scream. Even those who have tried to force themselves to stop laughing know how lost this battle can be. In the opinion of some researchers, animal calls, even those related to certain concepts, actually belong to this category, and thus must differ substantially from human language. Catherine Hobaiter illustrated this claim; in the chimpanzees she followed there was a female who wanted to eat the meat that another male had put aside a short time ago, but the male refused to share his food. The female waited for the male to fall asleep, silently approached him and tried to steal some meat. She came right up next to him without the male waking up, and reached out her hand. Then she was overcome with her natural tendency to make a call for food. The male woke up and the starving female was expelled in disgrace. This story illustrates that at least some of the calls of the animals are instinctive reactions rather than planned acts of communication.

One gesture is worth a thousand calls

Maybe we're all looking in the wrong place, and instead of exploring the sounds of animals we need to focus on their body movements?

Body movements are an important part of communication between animals, and between humans. Some of them are well known, such as a dog’s tail wag or their invitation to play: front legs outstretched and head bowed. The mood of a horse can be predicted by the angle of their ears - when they are pulled back and close to the head, it is better not to approach. Within many species of birds and fish, the males perform a dance in order to elucidate the female they seek. When males are fighting for dominance or territory they perform movements like a cat arching their back, designed to convince the opponent that they are big and scary. In these examples, the message being conveyed is similar to cries of animals - it does not refer to a specific concept, but rather their mental state in the situation. In insects there is actually a famous example of movements that carry a message of a different kind: a honeybee performs a dance upon return to their hive after finding a rich source of nectar. The duration and movements of the dance gives other bees information on the direction and distance to the plentiful flowers. Although the language of the bees is very limited, this may be the only example known to us, beyond human language of course, that is an intentional transmission of accurate information about an entity that is out of sight of the audience. In humans, hand gestures and body movements often accompany voice communication, which is also found with babies who interact with gestures before they learn to speak.

The animals most closely related to us, monkeys and apes, also communicate with movements – reaching out with their arms, linking their hands above their head, swinging from a branch, every ape can send a message from one to another. Studies have shown that different groups of chimpanzees, for example, use different gestures, and the young must learn the meanings from the adults. This is very reminiscent of human language. Some scholars believe that the original development of human language, probably before Homo sapiens, was based mainly on gestures, and was more like a sign language than the voice language we know today.

Sounds made with the toungue (and pharynx)

Our language may have started to rely mainly on voices when we developed a sound system that produced a great variety of sounds. Our pharynx, oral cavity and larynx are built slightly differently to that of our relatives, the monkeys and apes, and so we have more control over the sounds we make. To find other animals with such voice control, we must leave the mammalian kingdom and move to birds. Many birds are able to produce very complex sounds, and some also go beyond the abilities of humans with vocal imitations. This most famous are of course some parrot species, capable of imitating human speech, in addition to many other sounds. Even a crow’s imitations are quite impressive. But the “best imitator” crown probably belongs to the lyrebird. These birds are able to imitate just about anything, from calls of other birds to a click of a camera. In mammals, the ability to vocally imitate is fairly rare. Dolphins are able to mimic certain characteristics of human speech, and probably use this capability to learn the typical calls of their group. Living in the Boston aquarium several years ago was a harbour seal named Hoover who would greet visitors “Well, hello!” in a heavy New England accent, but it is unclear how common this is among his own kind. In order to develop complex voice language, it is essential not only to be able to produce a long list of different sounds, but also to precisely repeat sounds heard before. Of the order of the Primates, only humans developed this ability. This is also why apes are able to learn hundreds of words in sign language, but are not able to pronounce them.

Color and Flavor

If voice communication of many animals seems rather limited, they make up for it in other ways, some of which are less available to us. Anyone who ever encountered a dog on a walk would recognize the important role sense of smell plays in their social network. Not only for the fact that dogs tend to sniff each other's hindquarters when they meet, they also spend much time in careful examination of the smells that friends have left. Male dogs can learn, among other things, of the presence of a female in heat in the area. Chemicals used by animals to deliver a message to their species are called pheromones, and they are ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. Pheromones have been studied extensively in insects, where they are used, like dogs, to attract male and female, but also for many other purposes. For example, ants use pheromones to mark roads leading to a source of food and other pheromones to call their troops when the nest is under attack. Chemicals can also accompany other forms of communication - bees release pheromones when they perform their dance, which seems to attract the attention of their peers.

Many vertebrates, including reptiles and many other species of mammals, absorb pheromones with a special sniffing organ in the upper part of the pharynx, called the vomeronasal organ. You might have noticed a cat can sit with his mouth open, his lips drawn back and teeth bared, as if to display disgust for the entire world, it is actually an action for smelling pheromones. Mammals use this expression to aim the stream of air they breathe up to the vomeronasal organ. The organ is also found in primates, but for us and among our ape relatives it is quite degenerated. Humans, of course, do not use pheromones consciously, but research suggests that smells of other people can affect us without our knowledge.

Some animals have forms of communication that may seem even more foreign and strange to us. Squids and octopuses are able to change the color of their skin, and apparently this is a means of communication with their own kind, though in the meantime we can only guess what kind of messages they might convey. Even the chameleon, the animal most associated with a change in color, uses this at least in part as a way of conveying information. A female chameleon, for example, changes color when they are ready to breed.

Also in these communication methods we see the caller’s main messages transmitted through touch - with an emphasis on "I'm ready for sex." Do not underestimate the possibility for the octopus, whose intelligence is strikingly impressive, transmitting messages that are extremely sophisticated, and perhaps might have even developed a kind of visual language based on color changes. Today there are many studies on this topic in laboratories around the world, and it will be interesting to see what will soon be disclosed.

"Zootropolis" in the real world

So what would the film look like if its creators were a bit more realistic?

First of all (and even if we ignore the fact that animals of different species are talking to each other in the film), the characters communicate in a variety of ways beyond just voice. In reality, many messages would actually be transferred through gestures and stance, not to mention pheromones. The calls of the heroes of the film would be rather short, with no real syntax, and would mainly transmit the feelings they are experiencing at that specific time. Of course, for a movie where the dialogue is limited to, “I’m Scared! There’s a wolf!" and “There's food! Let's play!" it may not be particularly fascinating. However, Disney did remain quite true to the animals’ anthropomorphic characters – as if they were human figures - even if it's not exactly scientifically based.
 

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