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Animals use a variety of different signals to communicate with each other.

In this lesson you’ll identify the different types of communication signals and the situations in which they might be most useful.

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Communication Is Important

When you need to convey something to someone, you communicate with them. This is the process of individuals sending, receiving, and responding to a signal. There’s really no other way to ask your friend for a ride home, tell your mother you love her, or ask your dog to get off the couch. You have to send out a signal, the receiver has to get that signal, and then, hopefully, they respond!Communication is not a one-way street, nor is there just one way to communicate. Animals communicate with each other using signals that are visual, auditory, chemical, and electrical. The type of signal used depends on the message being conveyed, the environment, and the animal sending the signal.

Most animals do not rely solely on one type of signal. Instead, they utilize different types of signals and often at the same time. Using multiple signals serves to enhance or reinforce the message that the sender is trying to convey.

Visual Signals

There are an incredible number of different types of visual signals used in animal communication. Just think of the many various ways you can make a face to express your feelings, and you’ll see what I mean.Visual signals are most often used during the day because they simply can’t be seen in the dark of night. Animals, like birds and humans, use visual signals because they’re active and awake during the day and can easily see these types of signals being communicated. Visual signals come in the form of bright colors (like bird feathers) and specific body movements (like someone holding their hand up to say ‘stop’). Some animals even send a signal by changing color during courtship or aggression.In aquatic environments, visual signals often serve as territorial displays.

Some fish puff up like a balloon to make themselves appear bigger (and therefore scarier), while others may ‘charge’ at an intruder to show their willingness to defend their home.Visual signals may be beneficial in situations where other types of signals would be dangerous. If the sender of a signal can communicate that a predator is nearby without saying a word, this may enable those individuals to avoid being eaten without the predator ever knowing it was spotted.

Auditory Signals

Sound is another good way to send a message, and this can be effective when individuals are too far away to see visual signals.

You hear a pack of wolves long before you see it, and this is for a very good reason – they want you to stay far away!Other times, auditory signals are used in courtship displays or to invite mates into a territory. Auditory signals may be used to defend a territory if the owner feels threatened.Auditory signals can be helpful if an individual becomes separated from the rest of the group. You are more likely to yell for help if you are lost in the woods than to wave your arms around hoping someone will see you.

Your cry travels much farther than your visual arm waving, so the chances of being found are much greater with an auditory signal in this situation.

Chemical and Electrical Signals

A chemical signal is an effective way of communicating if you need to send a signal but don’t plan on sticking around for the receiver’s response. Many animals use chemical signals, such as scents, to mark territories. This way, they can mark a large area without having to constantly patrol the border to ward off intruders. The scent acts as a ‘No Trespassing’ sign, warning others that the area already belongs to someone else.Chemical signals may also be used to communicate beneficial information to other members of the group. For example, when worker honeybees bring back pollen from a patch of flowers, they regurgitate it to communicate to the other bees what it tastes and smells like.

This will help the other bees identify that same pollen when they’re out foraging.Chemical signals are often used in aquatic environments. Some female zooplankton use chemical signals so that the male can follow her scent trail. Others, like sea lampreys, use pheromones to indicate the location of breeding and spawning grounds to others.Similar to chemical signals are electrical ones, though these are only used in aquatic environments because air doesn’t transmit them effectively.

These signals are used for social communication as well as to detect objects like prey. Electrical signals are often used between animals that live deep in the sea or in murky waters. Here, it’s very dark, so animals would have a difficult time seeing and communicating with each other otherwise.

Lesson Summary

Effective communication involves clear signals being transmitted between senders and receivers. These signals come in different forms: visual, auditory, chemical, and electrical.

The type of signal being sent depends on the environment, the animals involved in the communication, and the message the signal is conveying.Some signals are more appropriate for certain situations than others. For example, using a visual signal at night is not going to be as effective as an auditory or chemical one because the receiver won’t be able to see that signal.Likewise, if you are trying to avoid getting eaten by a predator, you probably don’t want to make a scene with auditory signals because that will put a damper on your escape plans.Animals often use a combination of signals to convey messages.

Different types of signals can convey different parts of the same message, such as a chemical signal that says ‘taste this food I brought back,’ followed by a visual one that says ‘and now let me show you where it is.’ This can make communication more effective, as using multiple signals can enhance and reinforce the message being delivered.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson should teach you to:

  • Define communication and list the different types animals use
  • Give examples of ways animals use the different types of communication
  • Explain why animals use each type of communication

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