Information in Animal Communication

Information technology has evolved but has the information communicated through the technology also evolved, or are we communicating the same information as other animals on the planet? This week’s blog considers the information in animal communication.

In a recent BBC television documentary series, ‘Talk to the Animals’ (16-17 July 2014), zoologist Lucy Cooke met researchers around the world exploring how animals communicate with one another. While investigating the verbal and non-verbal communication within and between social groups of the same and different species, researchers have started to decode the information that is being communicated. The information may be communicated through sound, body language, chemical scent, bioluminescence, vibrations or infra-red radiation. Although the methods of communication may seem primitive when compared with the information communication technology used by humans, the information content of the communication is not so dissimilar.

Banded mongooses live in extended families and have a complex society that requires the co-ordination of activities. The mongooses use a contact call to maintain contact with the clan. The contact call contains two parts. The first part of the call identifies who they are; the second part of the call reports their current activity, such as digging or searching for food. They report and continually update their status activity in the social network.

Spotted hyenas also live in clans and work together to defend communal territory, however, the hyenas do not stay together all the time. When danger is detected the hyena emits a whoop sound that can be heard 5Km away to call for reinforcements. When threatened by a rival hyena clan, hyenas can count how many hyenas are in the rival clan by listening to the noise of the threat, count how many of their own clan are present and determine the potential rate of success, deciding whether to fight or flee. The chickadee bird also assesses and communicates the size of a threat it faces, changing its call depending on the size of the threat it faces as it also calls for reinforcements. The verbit monkey communicates both the type of threat and the action that needs to be taken to avoid the threat, recognizing that the action to be taken differs depending on the type of predator that has been detected.

A bottlenose dolphin develops a unique whistle to identify itself. The dolphins can copy the whistles of other dolphins to call for them, as we might call for others. Drongoes have the ability to mimic-the calls of 15 other birds. Drongoes use this ability to deceive meerkats by issuing a false alarm call that danger is near in order to steal food from the meerkats. When the alarm call no longer works, the drongoe changes the call. Fringed-lip bats have also evolved the ability to listen and interpret the calls of other species, which allows them to identify frogs that are poisonous.

Human information communication technology allows us to communicate over wider distances than these animals but the information we communicate is the same as these animals. For example,
o We identify who we are (like the dophin).
o We report our activities, we co-ordinate activities and make requests of others (like the mongooses).
o We warn others of danger and offer advice to avoid danger (like the monkeys).
o We listen in to other conversations (like the meerkat and bat) and sometimes we seek to deceive others (like the drongoe).

Social media provides us with the mechanism to replicate the communication of mongoose clans over vast distances, but the information content of the communication is very similar.

Further Reading: information is defined in Chapter 1 and social networking is discussed in Chapter 14.
Please use the following to reference this blog post in your own work:

Cox, S. A., (2014), ‘Information in Animal Communication’, 1 August 2014, -communication/, [Date accessed: dd:mm:yy]

© 2014 Sharon A Cox