Animal communication is one of the Holy Grails of the natural world. We’re so far apart from our animal cousins when it comes to language, but so close biologically. Once, when an advocate for animal rights asked a US Judge what percentage of shared DNA he’d require to rule that a primate should qualify for ‘Human Rights’, he suggested (logically) 51%. He clearly wasn’t an expert in the subject - some studies show we share 85% of the same DNA as our canine pals.
So it’s always fascinating when a new study about communicating with animals appears, because I can’t help but think we’ve been missing what has been sitting right under our noses all this time.
Taken from “The Week”, here’s a portion of the news story about one such study:
Focusing on non-verbal gestures, researchers spent 18 months in Kenya analysing thousands of cases and were able to identify 15 exact meanings for 36 different gestures.
Examples of such signals include the stomping of both feet, which is used to initiate play, and a request for contact, which is conveyed by a chimpanzee reaching out its arms. Leaning on one foot and thrusting it out means ‘climb on’.
The chimpanzees used these physical gestures to make requests and participate in important social negotiations.
According to research leader Dr Catherine Hobaiter, this is the only form of intentional, goal-oriented communication recorded in animals.
So according to this article, this is the “only form of intentional, goal-oriented communication recorded in animals”.
One of the examples given, is “stamping of both feet to initiate play”.
As dog owners (or at least having an interest in them!) surely we’ve all seen a dog deliberately initiate play? It’s not an accident that this pooch presses for playtime?
In fact there are a number of physical movements dogs use to communicate with each other in a very deliberate way. I mean, there are numerous signals they give off for play alone!
Dogs flirt with each other even after having been neutered or spayed – so there we have a deliberate interaction which isn’t actually driven by hormones. It’s a deliberate action to elicit a specific response from a fellow canine.
I’ve seen a dog, worried about going out in the dark, to come back inside the house and ‘ask’ his friend to go outside with him. Surely by it’s definition, that’s an intentional, goal oriented communication. “Come with me, I’m too scared to go out alone”.
Surely even bringing a ball back to their human is an intentional, goal oriented communication. “Here it is!! Throw it again!”
It’s not as though the Tennis Ball is found in nature. It isn’t as though they “accidentally” play ball.
Dogs even communicate with each other with just a look. The times a withering glance from a bossy girl dog makes a naughty pooch stop in their tracks and behave… one particular dog could stop any naughty behaviour with a lick to the nose of the naughty dog! (Those ‘dominance’ people would tell you a lick to the nose is a ‘submissive’ behaviour!)
If the rules for animal communication are “intentional and goal-oriented”, then once again, canine behaviour is being underestimated. Clearly it isn’t just primates that can do it – those furry cheeky monkeys can do it too…