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How Animals Communicate: From the Slightly Bizarre to the Very Bizarre

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My new book, The Secret Language of Animals: A Guide to Remarkable Behavior, takes us inside the animal kingdom to explain the behaviors of the world's most fascinating wild animals. Divided geographically into five sections--Africa, Asia, North America, the oceans, and the poles--the book discusses the movements, routines, body language, patterns of communication, and more in 20 animals, from the African elephant to the plains zebra to the Adélie penguin.

Humans use gestures, facial expressions, and body stance to show exactly how we feel--intentionally or unintentionally. Most animals you'll see at the zoo are communicating too. To better understand them, it helps to know a bit about their social structure. Do they typically live in herds, family groups, bachelor groups, harems, or off on their own? The interactions you see in zoos are drawn directly from these scripts. For instance, pandas, which are essentially solitary in the wild, all but ignore each other in their zoo exhibits (unless it's breeding season). Monkeys, on the other hand, are constantly touching, hooting and playing, reflecting their more complex social culture. Each species has its own rules and reasons, primarily to ensure the survival of the individual and his genes. Take a little tour with me here, and get a lot more out of your next safari or visit to the zoo.

Below are some of the goofiest, quirkiest and most captivating methods animals use to communicate.

  • That Panda Isn’t Doing Yoga
    Keren Su via Getty Images
    The secret to keeping peace in the bamboo forest is to mark your territory with your scent so other pandas know you’re there. Pandas rub secretions from their bums onto posts, tree trunks, exhibit walls, or on the ground, usually along paths that they habitually tread. Depending on who reads the mark, the scents may either separate pandas or help bring them together. There are several characteristic postures that will tell you that a panda is marking its exhibit. One is particularly comical: the Head Stand. The panda backs against a vertical surface, flips onto its forepaws, and leans its raised legs against the surface as it marks.
  • Peacocks Play Tag!
    Rick Takagi Photography via Getty Images
    Peacocks are social creatures, and one form of comradeship you may see is the tag game, in which the opponents (usually young peacocks) chase each other around a bush. For some reason unknown to us, they always travel counterclockwise, and the game always ends abruptly, sending all the birds scattering in different directions.
  • The Elephant’s Greeting
    Jonathan And Angela via Getty Images
    The world’s largest land mammals are downright gentle. In their 50 to 70 years of life, elephants come to know one another intimately. The friendliest thing you can do if you are an elephant is to walk toward another elephant with your ears high and folded and touch trunk tips. You might even put your trunk in the other elephant’s mouth. This greeting ceremony gives family and kin group members a chance to reaffirm social bonds, especially after being separated. The longer the separation, the more intense the greeting. An excited reunion among long-lost family or kin groups may include urinating, defecating, trumpeting, screaming, loud rumbling for several minutes, and lots of physical contact. Besides building goodwill, the rambunctious participants may also be swapping information that they need to survive.
  • Dolphins: The Most Faithful Caretakers
    vdorse via Getty Images
    When dolphins are sick or in pain, they issue a two-part distress whistle. Sometimes, other dolphins will stop their own calling as if to listen. Within seconds, they locate the victim, rush beneath it, and lift it to the surface so it can breathe. Drowning swimmers who have been lifted to safety report that dolphinian heroes are careful, efficient, and persistent. Dolphins have been known to lift an ailing comrade for each and every breath for days on end and provide intermittent support for weeks.
  • The Dinner Table is Where It’s All Going On for the Komodo Monitor
    Roy Toft via Getty Images
    Dramas among Komodo Monitors abound around carcasses because mealtimes are the only times when these normally solitary animals see one another. They tend to all their social business here: establishing rank, courting, and even copulating take place around the dinner table. Large monitors lord over the choicest pieces of a kill while small monitors perform careful, choreographed dance steps on the outskirts. Males lavish females with attention while sniping at one another with deadly accuracy. Afterward, each party returns to its piece of the island to bask, rest, hunt, and dig a shelter.
  • When Beluga Whales Have Had it Up to Here
    James Gritz via Getty Images
    You can spot an annoyed beluga by checking for a swollen melon-shaped lump set far forward on its head. To threaten an opponent, a beluga will gape with open mouth to show off its 40 peglike teeth. If its opponent shows no signs of submitting, it may pump its powerful tail and launch into an open-mouth chase, punctuated with a series of jaw claps. As the jaws slam together, the square, worn-out teeth strike one another with a sound that says, “I am not amused.” Belugas may also announce their displeasure by slapping the water surface with their flippers, flukes, or their entire body. Many a zookeeper who’s been a few minutes late with the food bucket has been drenched by these tantrums of impatience. In the wild, nonvocal slaps and claps, in addition to a host of barks, groans, yelps, squeaks, and squawks, allow group members to settle most disputes quickly.
  • The Zebra Salon
    Anup Shah via Getty Images
    Grooming can occur at any time of day, and a single session may last up to half an hour. Standing face-to-face, grooming partners begin by nibbling each other’s neck and work their way down toward the tail on one side and then to the other. Every zebra in the group engages in mutual grooming. Watching who grooms whom can help you discern relationships between individuals. The animals with the strongest bonds groom each other most frequently. You’ll notice, after watching a herd for a long time, that the stallion plays favorites when it comes to grooming the mares. He grooms certain mares more often, and if there is a young mare in heat, he will pay most attention to her. In bachelor groups, all the males groom one another, but without noticeable preferences.
  • Poor Giraffes: The Indignities of Just Getting a Drink of Water
    Johan Elzenga via Getty Images
    A giraffe’s front legs are so long that its neck is too short to reach the ground. To get a drink, the normally dignified giraffe has to splay its legs, dip its head down, and then hitch back up with a lurching motion. Or, if it prefers, it can kneel down to get water. A drinking giraffe is vulnerable, so to keep its unguarded moments to a minimum, the giraffe drinks quickly.
  • The Ostrich’s Big ‘O’
    Manoj Shah via Getty Images
    Prior to mating, the male and female ostrich synchronize their movements in a faux display of feeding. They lower their heads and make superficial pecks at the ground until their movements perfectly mirror each other. Then they retire to a symbolic nest site, chosen by the male, for a round of nest-site displays. To begin, the male raises his wings straight up (flagging), then beats his right and left wings alternately and rhythmically, flashing the stunning white feathers for added effect (sweeping). He then drops to the ground for his rocking display, wherein he fluffs his tail and sweeps the ground with one wing after another until the dust whirls. All the while, he sings a booming song and twists his neck in a corkscrew motion. The female, in the meantime, continues to pretend to feed--new meaning to pecking at one’s food on a date!--walking around the male in a very slow, measured gait. Finally, she stops and assumes a pre-copulatory posture: head lowered, neck flattened into a shallow arc, tail drooped and wings curved out and down in an “O” shape.