Communication among wildlife

Nature has come up with the most incredible ways of communicating, one doesn’t have to look or hear, or even smell, very far in order to notice the amazing levels of communication going on all around us. Even trees and plants communicate through a process known as jasmination! Today though, is all about the animals, and just how they go about connecting with each other.

As humans, we tend to think that we are pretty nifty with WiFi,  telephone calls and WhatsApp’s. Well, animals have been doing these sorts of things for a very long time. In fact, they have been doing it for much longer than it takes your granny to figure out where the video call button is!

In this blog, I will only be focusing on a few particular species as there just isn’t enough paper within Microsoft Word to discuss each and every species.

  • Vocalisation

Let’s begin with the most obvious form of communication, the humble spoken word! Humans have a plethora of languages that are cornerstone to our respective cultures. However, we are not the only ones that make audible sounds, and then there are animals that make inaudible sounds, inaudible to us, at least. Let’s take the giraffe, for example. Giraffe communication is not something you hear about very often, never mind actually hear! You see, giraffe make use of infrasonic communication. This just means that most of the sounds they make are inaudible to our human ears, but with the correct instruments one can actually pick up on grunts, moans and even whistles. These super low-pitched sounds have the advantage of travel distance, it is believed that animals can communicate with one another over several kilometres. I always like to talk from experience, and I can happily confirm that giraffe do indeed make audible sounds as well, although this is not very common. I have heard the odd grunt here and there, so at least that dispels the myth that giraffe are mute or silent animals.

Hmm, now what animal could we talk about next that actually makes audible sounds? Lions come to mind, but that would be too clichéd, I feel. How about we rather chat about the sneaky spotted hyena? If you have ever been on safari, you may have heard the ghostly “whooooOOp” in the darkness, as you just climb into bed. Believe me, if you don’t know what made this sound, it can be a little disconcerting. Well actually, even if you did know what made the noise, it might still be a little troubling. These wonderful animals, yes, I said wonderful, actually have a very in depth language that allows them to communicate on all sorts of levels. Whines, grunts, growls and even “laughs” assist this species in getting their point across. Let’s chat about that classic laugh, after all they are also known as the laughing hyena.

From my experience, I find this noise only really comes out when the animal or animals are nervous or excited, perhaps around a kill site where lions may come charging in at any moment. They also seem to produce this sound generally around kills as individuals move in on each other’s feeding spaces, kind of like being called out for not following acceptable social distancing protocols. Oh, and by the way, that “WhoooOOp” sound is merely produced to demarcate territory, clan strength and on occasion to call in back up so they can chase off the pesky lions from their kill.

Tanda Tula - close up of a giraffe in the Greater Kruger, South Africa

  • Olfactory

Within us humans, the sense of smell has proven to be a powerful force in terms of nostalgic memories, a whiff of something has the power to transport us right back to some very special moments in time. Thankfully though, we have mostly learnt to use our sense of smell in order to figure out if something is edible or not. I say thankfully because animals still use this powerful sense in far more, should we say, distasteful ways. None the less, it is vital in the everyday happenings of just about every animal we encounter. For this explanation I would like to focus on the mighty white rhino! Rhinos are the absolute definition of that famous saying, “a creature of habits”, especially the males. Africa is crisscrossed by the ancient paths left by not only elephants, but also by rhinos. But where do these paths lead? I can almost guarantee that a rhino’s pathway leads to one of two places (or both), either a water source/mud wallow or a latrine of sorts, called a midden.

Rhinos are fairly pedantic about where they use the toilet, often traveling miles just to get to one of their favourite spots. However, along the way, the males at least, will drag their feet through the soil in various places before spraying a bit, okay maybe a lot, of urine back over the scratching in the ground that they have just created. Every territorial animal relies on their territory carrying their own unique fragrance in order to warn imposters as to who they are messing with, but also to let females know just whose territory they are within. It is for this very reason that all territorial animals do the rounds every few days, it’s all about keeping your scent fresh and vibrant! I have digressed though, let’s get back to the middens. Territorial males will make use of a number of middens around their territory. These middens can grow rather large over time as the male returns time and time again to defecate.

However, it is not just him that will defecate there. Females moving through the area will also drop some dung at these middens and even younger subordinate males in the area will leave something behind. It is fascinating to note that the territorial male will leave his mark right in the middle of the midden every single time, in an effort to show strength and dominance. Furthermore, he will actually trample the dung to break it up, with the idea being that this helps not only to release more of his scent, but also to cover his feet in the odour so that as he walks around, he spreads his own scent. The females and younger males will leave their calling cards towards the periphery of the midden. Essentially, this creates one smelly situation, but the rhinos are very clued up on how to make sense of the whole thing, knowing exactly when one of the passing females is in oestrus and what age she might be. Conversely, the females will be able to tell, through just a mere whiff, as to which male is dominant in the area, as well as his age. This helps the girls in deciding whether or not to stay in the area in order to potentially mate with the territorial bull or to move on to the next territory where the male maybe smells a bit better.

Tanda Tula - rhino

  • Tactile

The age-old kiss on the cheek, or the warm embrace from someone we care about comes to mind with this form of communication. Sadly, right now the world doesn’t allow for this. Well, at least in the human population, but animals never got the COVID –19 memo! It really won’t take you long while on safari to come across some species or another enjoying some sort of embrace with each other. The biggest culprit of this, well the biggest of everything really, is  the African elephant! Elephants are a very touchy-feely animal and they love to make use of touch to convey a particular feeling or message. This form of communication is usually administered by the hugely tactile trunk – just another use for this most advantageous appendage. They use their trunk to guide their young by just gently nudging their babies in the right direction.

On occasion, they will use their trunk to dish out a bit of discipline, a particular sighting I once had comes to mind. I once witnessed a rather large bull smacking one of his much younger apprentices right on the head for daring to eat from the same bush as him. That was a hilarious thing to see, but not something I have seen all that often. What mostly comes to mind though, is beautiful moments in time of elephants wrapping their trunks around each other or resting their trunk atop of one another’s head. Studies have also suggested that elephants will put their trunks into each other mouths as a form of embrace, or to show compassion and reassurance.

The giant pachyderms are not the only species to practice this type of communication. Think along the lines of lions nuzzling each other to strengthen the bonds within their prides, or baboons grooming one another, or even zebra resting their heads on their buddies back. All of these are just touching scenes of animals enjoying time spent with each other. Unless of course you were that young elephant bull on that particular day.

Tanda Tula - elephant love on a photographic safari

  • Visual

For this section I want you to imagine your own little house cat sleeping perfectly on the couch, not a care in the world. Now imagine that same cat as you introduce another completely different cat to the scene. Hair standing on end comes to mind right, that arched back, the puffy tail and of course the hissing! All of that, other than the hissing, is visual communication, it is your cat attempting to look as big and as menacing as it possibly can. In the bush we don’t really have any domesticated cats, but we do have the elusive African wild cat, which is remarkably similar, although I have not been lucky enough to see them interacting with any sort of threat just yet. What we do have though, is hippos!

If you have ever had the opportunity to stop for your evening sundowners at a watering hole that just so happens to house a hippo or two, I am sure you have seen the classic “yawn” that they tend to offer up. This isn’t so much a yawn, but rather a way for the animal to show just how big its mouth and teeth are. Basically, the hippo is telling you to watch yourself and not come too close. They can prove to be fairly grumpy animals and so my advice to you would be to follow their warning signals and not go any closer. It is a wonderful thing to witness though, especially when they combine it with a bit of vocal communication in the form of that one of a kind grunting sound that hippos produce. In essence, it is a warning to all those that care to take note.

Just about every other species makes use of visual communication. Think along the lines of a leopard snarling at an intruding hyena in order to show the imposter how big its teeth are. What about a male spectacled weaver, and most male birds in general, who completely change their appearance as the breeding season approaches.

Tanda Tula - hippo yawning in the Timbavati

  • Pheromonal

Sadly, we humans seem to have lost the ability to sense pheromones. Well, at least that’s what the studies would suggest. There is a very special organ required in order to really sense them, this is called the vomeronasal organ which is also known as the Jacobson’s organ. While we have remnants of this organ, it really isn’t anything developed enough to sense pheromones. Thus, it is believed, that if humans do in some way sense pheromones it would be through old fashioned smell. However, we are here to discuss animals and the group of animals that comes to mind most in this respect is the cats. They just have such a visual way of showing that they are sensing pheromones. We call this the flehmen grimace and it is not at all limited to just the cats, but because of their mighty teeth it’s them who look most interesting doing it.

This usually occurs when a lioness urinates, if there are any males with her they often become very interested in this action. Soon thereafter the male will approach the site where the lioness urinated, bend down, sniff intensely and then stand back up while curling his lips back, displaying his huge teeth, squeezing his eyes closed and looking like he is visibly in pain. What he is doing during this time is basically forcing the pheromone towards the base of his nasal cavity behind the incisors within his mouth where the ducts to the vomeronasal organ are found. From here the pheromone can be sensed to determine things such as the lionesses mating readiness, age, health and status within the pride. One thing for sure, is that it really is a fun thing to see and to photograph while out on safari.

Tanda Tula - lion roaring in the Greater Kruger, South Africa

I hope you enjoyed this, admittedly brief, explanation on the various forms of communication within the animal kingdom. Of course, as with all Safari Science articles, there is so much more to explain, so if you have any question on this subject, feel free to leave a comment below and we will happily get back to you!

Until next time, stay safe,