5 Eerily Sophisticated Ways Animals Communicate

Everyone knows that animals can communicate with one another, but they don't talk. If you hooked some language interpreter to a dog or monkey, every phrase would translate to "I'm scared!" or "I'm going to kill you!" or "Hey baby, let's have some bear sex!" It's not like animals lie, or gossip, or argue.

That's what we used to think, anyway ...

#5. Prairie Dogs Are Talking About You (and We Mean You Specifically)


Prairie dogs are chatty little desert squirrels that live in massive underground "towns" numbering in the hundreds or thousands (and occasionally in the millions, which is big enough to have a community college and an NFL team). They communicate with loud barks and yips, which you'd expect from something called a prairie dog. But if you walk by them and they start making their little noises, keep something in mind: They're describing you, right down to your wacky ironic T-shirt.

"Whoa now, that's a pretty small package to pair with a Slayer shirt."

Prairie dogs have a language so complex that they have a different "word" they can shout to identify what kind of predator is approaching, and thus have a specific noise that means "humans are coming." But one expert found that prairie dogs had variations in their calls depending on which human they saw. In experiments, the dogs' calls would differentiate based on what color shirts researchers were wearing, how tall or short they were, how close they were and how fast they were moving.

That's right -- the prairie dogs were actually describing each person in remarkable detail with a single chittering bark. A professor named Con Slobodchikoff has been studying prairie dog calls for 30 years, and says that one vocalization can translate into "There's a tall skinny guy in green a few yards away and he's sprinting toward us," sort of like that scene in Wayne's World where Mike Myers speaks five English sentences with one word of Cantonese.

They're probably also judging you.

This means that prairie dogs possess a level of communication more sophisticated than that of dolphins or chimps, and yet for some reason we have yet to dress them up as butlers or make them dive through hoops in front of spoiled children.

#4. Fairy Wrens Talk Shit to Predators (to Impress Women)


Splendid fairy wrens are pretty little blue birds in Australia that have probably been insufferable ever since they found out that we gave them that name.

Discover Magazine
Drink it in, baby.

Fairy wrens are routinely murdered for food by other birds, primarily butcher birds. As we have previously discussed, butcher birds are about the closest thing to freewheeling lunatics in the avian world, with a penchant for impaling their still-living victims on thorn bushes. And they love to food-murder fairy wrens.

They love it.

So, one would expect fairy wrens to lay low if their psychopathic archnemesis is in the area, which is precisely the opposite of what actually happens. When a butcher bird lets loose with the chirp of bloodthirsty mania, male fairy wrens will immediately answer it with their own call. The two birdsongs are so similar that it sounds like the wren is singing a duet with its would-be killer. Essentially this is like Jason Voorhees stalking through a rickety cabin while some hidden teenager calls out, "Warmer. Warmer. Waaaarmerrr."

Why would the wrens risk exposing themselves to predators like this? The same reason males of any species do most things -- to attract females. The male fairy wrens are far from the first guys in history to tap dance in the face of certain malevolent destruction to impress women. It's boner-fueled confidence (or "bonefidence," as it is known in the scientific community we invented in our minds just now), and girls love a confident, reckless badass.

Chris Mellor / Getty
Look at that wild son of a bitch strut his stuff.

Scientists call the phenomenon vocal hitchhiking. When a predator like the butcher bird is nearby, the female fairy wrens are obviously listening intently to its calls. While the attention of the females is piqued, the males jump in with their own bird bravado, knowing that they have an audience. The females become smitten with these devil-may-care rebels, who are then free to swoop in and carry the ladies off for a night of boundless passion, provided the butcher birds haven't eaten the shit out of them.

#3. Alcon Caterpillars Are Smooth-Talking Con Artists

David Nash, Nature.com

The caterpillar of the alcon blue butterfly is kind of like Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act -- it uses the power of song to disguise its true identity and trick others into caring for it. "That's a strikingly human tactic!" you might say. "How does this arthropod accomplish such a thing without higher brain function or a wacky premise involving nuns and the mob?"

Through butterfly cunning.

Well, the mechanism seems pretty simple -- the first segment of the caterpillar's abdomen has a small lip that it scrapes to make its "song." But when the caterpillar sings it, it sounds just like a red ant queen -- so much so that any ants within listening distance will carry the butterfly larva back to their colony and literally give it the royal treatment, as if it were actually the queen.

Either because caterpillars are geniuses or because ants are really stupid, the ants will guard the caterpillar with their lives, even against the real queen, sometimes exiling or killing her if the caterpillar is convincing enough. That's like a Miley Cyrus impersonator showing up at a concert and usurping her, then going on to live the life of a famous pop star while the real Miley is either deported or devoured by Disney executives.

New Scientist
Not a metaphor.

In fact, the ants are so stoked about their new adoptee that they will kill their own brood to feed it if times are tight. That's right -- the ants will happily feed their children to the caterpillar, because it sings a song that tells them to.

Science Blogs
Most of what it sings for them to do isn't legal for us to write about.

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