5 Perfectly Clear Examples of Interspecies Communication
Have you ever wished that you could talk to animals? If so, you might have been the loneliest kid at your elementary school. Regardless, the idea of being able to chop it up with the myriad members of the animal kingdom is a constant human fascination. Whether between humans and animals or between different animals, it seems that most species have their own unique language, like twins do. Who among us hasn’t gazed into a pigeon’s dead, marble eyes and wondered, “What is she thinking?” It shows up in media as well, whether it’s through advantages in technology or more supernatural means, like your Doctor Dolittles or your C-tier superheroes.
As you well may know, straightforward animal communication has not been achieved, as if it had, it would be international fucking news. Even though we, devastatingly, are still probably a long time away from being able to ask a capybara how their weekend was, there are a number of low-grade examples of interspecies communication that can pass on information, sometimes helpful, sometimes not. “Communication” might also be a bit of an oversell, but they’re interesting either way. Such as…
Do you want to be Aquaman? Probably not. But you might at the very least think it would be cool to communicate with dolphins. Sharing that interest was neuroscientist John C. Lilly, who set off on a study of dolphin intelligence in 1958. His idea was to attempt to teach a dolphin language by emulating the environment in which a human child would learn to talk: in a house with mommy. Mommy, in this case, was a female research associate named Margaret Howe, who spent 10 weeks living in a partially flooded house with a dolphin named Peter. The water level was such that both could effectively navigate the entire house.
As this went on, there were some encouraging developments — namely, when the dolphin began to imitate the voice and sounds of his ersatz mom. Unfortunately, the results from this experiment were a much bigger win for Sigmund Freud than they were for John C. Lilly. Specifically, they may have proved the existence of the Oedipus Complex in dolphins, as Peter, after a few weeks of living with Howe, began to regularly try to initiate sexual activity with her. When she didn’t reciprocate, he would become violent. He would butt her legs, bite her and show off his genitals. The experiment was halted, but not before a clinically observed human-dolphin hand job. Gross!
Rats Will Destroy You in IRL ‘Minesweeper’
If we’re talking about interspecies communication that’s already increased the quality of human life, some level of that may already exist, in the form of tiny, furry heroes out of Africa. The African pouched rat has one massive advantage over humans: an incredibly sensitive nose, which is a great feature for an animal whose main hobby is sniffing. Their sense of smell is so good, though, that they can detect certain things by smell that you wouldn’t exactly classify as stinky — for instance, buried land mines and tuberculosis.
The communication here is basic, simple indications of scratching or indicating to confirm a suspect stink. It might be rudimentary, but it’s also extremely accurate. Not to damage the human ego too deeply, but the rats are better than us at both tasks. A rat can test 100 possible tuberculosis samples in 10 to 20 minutes, and the same number would take a human four days to test. Not to mention, the rats regularly find TB cases humans have missed. They’re just as adept with minesweeping: Over the last 20 years, they’ve found more than 100,000 mines and explosives.
If you’re still a little scared about entrusting your life to a rat, know that before mine rats are put into active duty, they have to clear a 29-acre test field without missing a single mine and they’re allowed only one false positive, putting to rest the idea that they’re just scratching a lot of spots.
Interspecies Vibe Checks
Another fairly rudimentary level of human-animal communication is one that’s as old as time, and weirdly, seems to have launched an incredible amount of viral content. This is the general recognition of animals across species of body language. Whether it’s someone doing bicycles convincingly enough to get some emus to say hi, or a child poorly supervised enough to beat their chest at a, thankfully, zoo-bound gorilla, even without spoken words, it’s pretty clear that from sight alone, animals are picking up what we’re putting down.
When you share a planet with other species, you do naturally have to find ways to get certain messages across. Octopuses (and yes, it’s octopuses — the word octopi is a trap for pedants) have figured out a pretty straightforward way to tell fish one important thing: fuck off. The method they’ve chosen is one most people are deeply familiar with, the love tap. Essentially, they’ve been observed in the wild punching fish. It should be clear, this isn’t with the intent to kill or hunt the fish, but to discourage the fish from stealing possible prey by saying, “Hey, I’m huntin’ here!”
That all makes sense. Unfortunately, they seem to be naturally suited for the bully lifestyle, as now scientists have also observed octopuses punching fish for no discernible reason, maybe out of pure spite or boredom.
An article about a strange natural phenomenon that humans could possibly take advantage of? You better believe the U.S. military is on the case. When Louis Herman, experimenting with dolphin communication, was able to teach dolphins to identify different objects with unique whistles, he rapidly received a visit from a very curious U.S. Navy who wanted a look. They threw a comparative pittance in the scale of military funding his way in 1985, but that’s where our knowledge of this ends, as it was rolled into the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program and became classified information.
We do at least have some surviving gems from Herman’s research that can be observed outside of a SCIF. A particularly worthwhile watch is a documentary on the Navy’s attempts to communicate with dolphins by pitching human sounds up and dolphin sounds down. At the very least, watch around 12:30 to see a very serious looking man making dolphin noises.