Las Vegas Sun

November 19, 2019

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Secret talks: Animals have unique ways of communicating


Douglas C. Pizac / AP

In this file photo, a desert tortoise like those found in Nevada seeks relief from the sun under a bush.

Language is defined as “audible, articulate, meaningful sound as produced by the action of the vocal organs.” This makes sense, given that the Latin root of the word, lingua, means “tongue.” But what of those creatures that lack a tongue, much less the ability to vocalize?

Of course, even the dictionary definition expands language to include pretty much any way organisms communicate. Efforts to grow, thrive and reproduce all depend on the ability to interact with the environment around you and all the beings therein. Many plants and animals have their own means of communication beyond what we consider speech.

Networks in the Nevada desert

• Coyote tobacco, also simply known as wild tobacco, is a plant birthed by fire. Successful germination often relies on soil burned from a lightning strike. Some seeds can lay dormant for more than a century, so the plant has had to evolve to outsmart danger. Like many plants, coyote tobacco is an excellent communicator. According to studies reported by the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, at night, the tobacco emits a tantalizing scent from its flower to attract tobacco hawk moths, which then come and pollinate said flower and lay eggs on the leaves. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars begin to eat the plant’s leaves, a move that doesn’t play in the tobacco’s survival favor. As a defense, the plant emits a compound through its leaves to attract predatory insects to eat the moth’s eggs and caterpillars.

• Prairie dogs: These gregarious ground squirrels are no stranger to complexity—prairie dog underground lairs are massive networks of tunnels and dens, essentially an underground critter city. They have a similarly complex language, the extent of which one scientist finds astonishing. Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University told Radiolab that not only do prairie dogs have calls for danger, they include descriptions of said danger. It’s not just “human!” its “human with a green shirt!”

• Desert tortoise: The largest tortoise in the United States is also called the gopher tortoise because it spends a lot of time in underground burrows. Male tortoises are equipped with a set of scent glands on their chins, which signal females that they are sexually mature and ready to boogie. The more dominant the male, the larger the gland and, therefore, the larger the supply of testosterone.

Desert tortoises also communicate using grunts, touch and movement. Another way a male displays his desire to mate is by intensely staring at a female with his neck fully extended and head bobbing. If she’s not into him, he’ll pursue her and ram into her like a bumper car until she acquiesces.

Species around the world

• Nodding off: The day gecko of Madagascar is a big fan of honeydew straight from the source, but we’re not talking melons. Instead, the sticky substance in question is the secretion of the leafhopper insect. When the gecko wants a tasty treat, it approaches a leafhopper and nods its head. In response, the leafhopper wiggles its abdomen and then fires a ball of honeydew into the waiting lizard’s mouth.

• Light show:Cuttlefish are masters of the quick-change. According to the journal Nature, the cephalopod camouflages itself by contracting the muscles around tiny, colored skin cells called chromatophores. The cells essentially act as pixels, flashing changing colors and patterns to better reflect the cuttlefish's surroundings or its mood.

• Dance pants: Bees of all stripes perform dances to let other bees know important information, such as where to find a good patch of pollen. Once a scout returns from a research mission, it dances directions while other bees watch, sniff and taste nectar or pollen as a sample and signpost. The waggle dance, as it's called, indicates both distance and direction, depending on the size of its dance floor and angle of the dance.

• Anything but dumbos: Understood to be among the most intelligent animals in the world, elephants live in complex societies with sophisticated methods of communication that go beyond merely trumpeting. Elephants correspond across great distances using infrasound, a deep rumbling below 20 hertz that humans can't hear. Additionally, the pachyderms use other methods of communication such as posturing, ear displays and touching with their trunks.

• Scat chat: White rhinoceroses use piles of dung, called middens, as their personal Twitter feed. A herd of rhinos (also called a crash) will defecate in the same place, making it easy to pick up any olfactory clues. Up to 65 feet across, the middens communicate whose territory it is, who is ready to mate, who has parasites and so on.

• Good vibrations: The African demon mole rat hates bad neighbors just as much as you do. These rodents are solitary creatures and aren’t too pleased if another burrows too closely. So it does what anyone would do in this situation—slam its head against the roof of its tunnel. This form of seismic, or vibrational, communication comes at a slow pace when trying to intimidate predators and a fast pace when warning other demon mole rats.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.