EARTH MATTERS: ANIMAL COMMUNICATION

Featuring a remarkable encounter with a Pacific harbor seal

The ability of animals and humans to communicate has evolved over eons as an adaptation to facilitate species’ survival. Although humans have mastered a complex auditory language to artfully communicate with each other, we still lack the ability to communicate fluidly with other animals, even though animals have been observed using a multitude of communication methods to attract mates, warn off predators, and express empathy, curiosity, and happiness.

Commonly acknowledged methods of animal communication involve visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical actions and traits. Two methods of visual communication include “badges” or “displays.” Badges represent the color and shape of the animal, whereas displays are behavioral adaptations such as the characteristics of an animal’s mannerisms. In contrast, auditory communication involves the use of a myriad of sounds such as the warning bark of an elephant seal or the happy purr of a cat. Tactile communication differs from visual and auditory by incorporating the use of physical contact such as touch to convey a message. Most people are familiar with a cat or dog extending its paws to get your attention. Lastly, chemical communication involves the transfer of a gaseous or liquid substance into the air or onto a surface as a means for an animal to explain itself. It is hard for anyone with a sense of smell to deny the defensive message behind the pungent odor of a skunk’s spray.

Thankfully, I have had many direct experiences with animals attempting communication with me. One enlightening morning occurred at a classic surf break four miles north of Santa Cruz in California. The soft rays of the rising sun bathed the sandstone shoreline cliffs in a brilliant red amber glow. I had just breathed a sigh of contentment after surfing perfect sets of head-high glassy waves when I noticed movement in my peripheral vision. Turning my head, my eyes rapidly dilated to large black discs as a four-foot plus, very light grey colored, Pacific harbor seal silently drifted on its back towards my side. Calming myself, I felt the seal slide headfirst onto my lap. Humbled by this incredible opportunity, I focused on being present and in the moment as I reached out with my hand and stroked the smooth fur on the seal’s chest. In the following moments, a blanket of tranquility descended upon us as we “shared breath”. The act of “sharing breath” signifies an exchange of life energy and touches upon the deeper meaning of “Aloha” in Hawaii.

Trusting my head and heart, I grasped the outstretched sharp-clawed flipper of my new friend. To my utter surprise, the seal responded in kind by delicately squeezing my hand three times in a row with a deliberate measured pause between each squeeze. After several more minutes my friend slid gently off my lap and stared at me with large compassion-filled eyes before slipping below the ocean’s surface. Had the seal consciously attempted to use the opportunity of our touch as a tactile method of communication? What was the seal trying to say?

Most modern-era philosophers and scientists have accepted the assertion of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in 1858 that most species’ traits, including language, blend from simple to complex. Thus, difference between human and animal species is smaller than some would like to believe. In opposition, a minority counters that human language bears very little resemblance to animal communication. They profess that animal language lacks creativity, rules, and meaning. Thus, they believe that animals cannot conduct a meaningful conservation with humans.

Regardless of the picayune reasons we use to justify elevating the human language above all other forms of animal communication, it does appear that we can communicate with some animals to some extent. Proponents of meaningful human and animal communication point to the way great apes have learned to communicate with humans. Experiments spanning decades conducted by Dr. Jane Goodall have revealed that Chimpanzees learned “languages” based on human hand gestures and symbols. Similarly, scientific research conducted with parrots has shown their ability to learn the meaning of words and creatively use them to demonstrate feats of learning and their desires. An alternate to using human constructed linguistics and symbols involves using “playback experiments” to demonstrate humans’ ability to convey meaning with any species. “Playback experiments” involve recording animal sounds and playing them back to elicit the same behavior as produced by the original call. In some instances, researchers have modified the original recordings and been able to elicit a modified response.

If we were able to communicate with animals using their “languages” it would radically alter our society and the way we interact with nature. Humans and animals could collaborate to create symbiotic relationships. It would be pretty hard to continue justify passing legislation that causes degradation of the environment if the mocking birds were able to sing a tune we all could understand.

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Billy Mason

Billy Mason

Billy Mason is an environmental studies instructor, writer, and project coordinator who concentrates on climate change planning. He is an alumnus of the University of Hawaii at Hilo and the Clinton Global Initiative University, a former researcher for the Aspen Global Change Institute, a Climate Reality Project Leader, and former science instructor at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center. As an accomplished mountaineer, aviator, and surfer, he has a personal connection with nature’s elements and a diversity of cultures.