- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Just because an animal grunts or growls doesn’t mean it lacks the sophistication for a casual chat.

Animals routinely communicate — from thunderous barks to calls — to mark territories, warn intruders from getting too close and when they want the comfort only a mate can provide.

How they request all these actions varies from creature to creature, but they all engage in at least some form of communication.

John Carnio, a general curator with the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, says even within a species there can be a wide variety of communication levels.

Lions tend to be the most communicative of the big cats, Mr. Carnio says as one example, mostly because they don’t live the kind of isolated lives other cats do.

Lions living together, a grouping called a pride, will roar, grunt, spit and hum with each other to express themselves.

The majestic cats also employ facial expressions and postures to let their feelings be known.

Cheetahs communicate more than researchers originally thought, Mr. Carnio says. Even though cheetahs live relatively solo lives, they emit a series of chirps and grunts to reach out to others, “even though we don’t know what it all means,” he adds.

Wildlife biologist Jeff Corwin, host of the Animal Planet TV show “Corwin’s Quest,” says humans often underestimate how important the sense of smell is to many creatures.

“Many animals use smell as their primary method of communication,” Mr. Corwin says. “Smell can be an odor, or it can be a repellant. It can be an invitation or a definition of territory.”

Leaf-cutter ants, Mr. Corwin says, function strictly based on smell, having lost their sense of vision in the evolutionary process.

Other animals, like dogs, use a combination of smells and auditory cues to communicate with one another, he says.

Birds seemingly communicate all the time, if their continual chirping is any indication.

Kathleen O’Malley, a crane technician with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, says whooping cranes possess a “fairly extensive language” containing body language signs along with verbal cues.

“Cranes have a very large vocabulary of bodily expressions,” Ms. O’Malley says , down to its crown, the patch of nearly featherless skin on its head.

The color of the skin changes, as does its shape depending upon the crane’s mood.

“When sick, it turns a dull color. It’s an emotional barometer,” she says.

The bird’s body language also sends a message, often one that the regular viewer would misread.

“It may appear he’s grooming a feather, but he’s giving a threat display that other cranes will recognize,” she says of cranes, which typically form monogamous unions during their life spans.

It also helps the average crane that he or she has long legs that can perform displays other birds can watch.

The birds also release calls that can sound like something out of an orchestra.

That’s no accident, Ms. O’Malley says.

“The whooping crane has a trachea that coils twice. It gives it almost a french horn sound that can be heard over several miles,” she says.

These birds better learn the fine art of communication because they can live anywhere from 40 to 70 years.

“Generally, those [animals] with longer life spans have more advance form of communication,” she says.

Some forms of animal communication can be “sent” long distance.

William Langbauer, director of science and conservation at the Pittsburgh Zoo, says an elephant’s hearing is anywhere from 10 to 100 times more perceptive than a human’s.

The massive creatures use that innate gift to hear the infrasonic sounds sent back and forth by one another.

One advantage of using infrasonic sounds, which are too low in pitch for humans to hear, is that it can traverse great distances.

“In still air, they can hear each other over a couple of miles,” says Mr. Langbauer, who travels to Africa several times a year to conduct field research with elephants regarding their vocalization.

In Africa, he works with fellow researchers who tranquilize and move elephants from densely populated areas to less crowded areas and place collars on them to collect vocal data. The plan is to detect which infrasonic “speech” indicates stress, joy and other emotions to uncover the key to elephant chatter.

Communication is crucial for procreation, since female elephants are sexually available only four days out of every four years.

A female in heat will make an estrus call to seek out a mate, a low-frequency sound burst she’ll let out in a stream for 45 minutes at a time.

“The frequencies are modulated, from low to high so that it’s easy to pick out from background noise,” he says. “An elephant can listen to the call and get an idea of where he is and how far away she is [depending upon] how rich the sound is.”

Males elephants respond as requested. They also are very quiet once they receive the signal.

“If you’re a guy [elephant] and you hear this, you’re not gonna make a sound and let the other boys know you’re on to something,” he says.

Louise Hill, curator of the Norfolk-based Virginia Zoo, says there’s nearly no end to the ways animals reach out to one another.

“There are so many different ways animals communicate, almost as many as there are animals,” Ms. Hill says.

Creatures large and small reach out to one another to mark their territory, find a mate or warn others about impending danger.

When a crow sees a red-tailed hawk or gray horned owl in the vicinity, it might let out a full-throttled cry to let fellow crows know of the potential predator.

The ensuing crush of crow calls serves both to warn the other crows and to confuse the predator, she says.

Apes generally communicate in ways similar to us, Ms. Hill says.

“Besides just talking to each other they do a lot of listening to tail thumps,” she says. They also leave their scent around terrain they wish to mark as their own, either to scare away others or invite potential mates.

Some monkeys, like the gibbon, communicate with regional accents just like humans do, Ms. Hill says.

As much as we know about various animals and their communication modes, researchers have plenty to learn to fully grasp how all animals react to their fellow creatures.

“A lot of animals communicate, and we don’t even know they’re communicating,” she says.

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