If we could talk to the animals, just imagine it—we could be butting in on other species' conversations.
Can animals talk to other animals? This question—from an Anon's 6-year-old cousin—is familiar to anyone who's ever been caught up in the poignant friendship of a cartoon fox and a cartoon hound. Obviously, their real-life equivalents aren't sitting down to chat, vocally, about Yeats over a nice cup of tea. But if you drop the human pretension, and start thinking of communication as a simple exchange of information, you'll see cross-species conversations happening, experts say.
"There's a really great photo set of a polar bear and a dog that were playing. What had happened was that this owner saw the polar bear come for his husky, and thought that was the end of the husky. Instead, they started playing for a half hour or so and then the bear walked off," said Doug Broadfield, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University.
Both animals were expressing an intent to play through the use of body language, Broadfield said. The human involved didn't get that at first, but the dog and the bear clearly knew what the other was "saying".
We humans tend to think of communication as solely about formal language—preferably spoken. Instead, animals use things like movement, posture and even pee—as well as sounds—to share concepts like, "I want to play," or messages like, "There's food over here." As long it makes sense, communication has happened.
In fact, some researchers think "communication" is a fancy way of talking about almost all animal behavior.
"Everything we do 'makes sense': to us, to somebody else, now or in the future. Perhaps I am a bit too radical in this, but it is honestly my position as scholar," said Dario Martinelli, Ph.D., who studies animal communication at the University of Helsinki in Finland.
Researchers like Martinelli see communication happening when a gazelle shows off for a predator—bouncing and running around in sight of a lion, looking conspicuously healthy and hard to catch. There's communication inherent, he says, in the symbiotic relationship between a hippo and the birds that eat bugs off its back.
Even with a more conservative definition, the question isn't really, "Does animal communication happen?" but, "Can humans understand it?" We don't always, and we're better at spotting communication in animals that think more like us, like apes, Broadfield said. Sometimes, even then, we see the communication and misinterpret the message.
"One of the very early mistakes was when we saw apes kind of smile. We thought everything was great," Broadfield said. "But then, in the wild, we found they don't really smile when they're happy. It means they're kind of anxious about something."
Observations like that make up the backbone of animal communication research. Like new parents trying to communicate with a baby human, researchers watch the behavior and try to make sense of it from situational context. It's easy for subjectivity to creep in, but it's the best system we've got. Getting more objective would require knowing what areas of animal's brain are associated with communication, and when they're in use.
And, unfortunately, that would take stuffing a conscious chimpanzee into an fMRI machine.
You can see the problem.
"It's been tried, but we're not any closer to understanding how the brain lights up for communication tasks in chimps," Broadfield said. "With humans, you can put them in an fMRI and give them a task to perform right there. With chimps, they perform the task, then you sedate the chimp and then put him in. It's stressful, and there's a delay time between doing the task and doing the scan."
"Ideally, you'd have to raise a chimp to be able to lay still in an fMRI and get results from there. But we're still a few years away from being able to do that."
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Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.