How The Hen House Turns: Communication Between Animals

Wild California turkeys ‘communicating’. Courtesy photo
Los Alamos Daily Post

We humans are so focused on our verbal ways of communicating, it is easy to overlook the more subtle methods used by plants and animals.

However, that topic has appeared in some excellent books (The Hidden Life Of Trees and The Inner Life of Animals: What They Feel by Peter Wohlben )

Communication between living beings, and between themselves and their environments, is not limited to sound. Smell and taste play large roles in animal and plant communication. A giraffe can smell danger when eating.

Electrical impulses can travel 1/3 inch per second in trees, increasing the tannin in some. The scent of willow trees attracts bees, who collect their pollen. Saliva from an insect is tasted by the leaf that insect is eating. Reacting to the saliva, the leaf then produces a chemical that attracts predators to the hungry insect.

Soil fungi have been found to act as communicators of nourishment, making it available in a felled tree. The roots interact with the fungal hyphae. Some root tips also have nerve cells. Trees often grow close together and share nutrients gathered in their roots.

These communication skills are usually lost in agricultural plants and “cultivated,” not wild plants. That’s why insects feed better off farm crops.

The amazing ability of dogs to smell has been put to work in many ways. Their work finding victims of fires or earthquakes and snow avalanches is well known. They can detect killer whales’ scat floating on Puget Sound waters. They can smell mice in large meadows and find the scat from silverspot caterpillars.

In the excellent series Planet Earth II, David Attenborough has captured videos of a grouper and an octopus working together to catch small fish hiding in a coral alcove. The grouper points his body at the small fish to attract the octopus’s attention.

Octopuses disguise themselves with shells when they see a shark approaching. If the shells don’t confuse the shark and the octopus gets caught, the octopus puts his arm into the shark’s gills so he can’t breathe.

The stories continue as we learn how other lives invent ways to survive. Some of the most remarkable examples of life’s genius is found in Ross Piper’s huge book of 540 gorgeous photos and scanning electron micrographs (SEMs) “focused” on the world’s tiniest animals.

These 1.5 million microscopic species “feed on other organisms.” Some of these weird blobs move around and respond to stimuli…” like us humans.”1.5 million known species have been identified out of a possible 10 to 200 million species so small we have little or no awareness of them.

Recently we are also learning about large animal strategies for survival. An August 2019 article in Scientific American by Garath Arnott and Robert W. Elwood of Northern Ireland, “When Animals Fight,” reports evidence showing that when large male nonhuman animals decide to fight or to retreat for the right to mate, they do not assess the strength of their opponent.

They assess their own chances, based on their own size and weight. Studied were Siamese fighting fish, jumping spiders, stalk-eyed flies, hermit crabs, killer fish, house crickets, domestic pigs, and wild giraffes. Are humans very different?

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