Animals communicate with one another in a variety of ways. Communication might be in the form of scent, sound, sight, body language, touch or even a combination of senses. The purpose of this communication could be to welcome, or to attract, to fool, threaten, or to even keep the peace amongst social groups. One of the most noticeable, but also subtle and often overlooked communication types, is the use of body language.
At one time or another, most of us have witnessed an animal’s body language. For those with pets, you have probably observed that when a house cat is scared, their tail puffs up, they raise up on their toes, and the hair along the back and the body becomes erect. This is an example of the cat using body language to convey to you (or another animal) that they are a big, formidable opponent to a threat, perceived or real. Other examples of this communication include dogs showing their teeth when annoyed, or horses raising their head high when they begin to panic. Guests can walk through the zoo and see all of the animals using body language in many unique ways.
Some animals communicate with others by – scent-marking a path, scratching a tree or vocalizing to troop members; many of these forms of communication are to warn another of impending danger or to mark a territory. But for most body language to be an effective communication tool, the behavior needs to be in the proximity of another.
Chimpanzees live in large groups and have very complex societies. They use body language all the time. A low-ranking member of the group needs to be able to see when the dominant male is ready to display (his hair stands on end, he starts swaying his body, and he may use an object to throw as he runs through the group) so they can stay out of his way. Conversely, orangutans live a much more solitary life with females and their successive offspring living loosely together and males more on their own. The larger size of the mature male with cheek flanges and long dreadlock hair are used to convey to a mature female “pick me, pick me!”
Body language can be enhanced when in combination with other types of communication. For example, if a lion wants to protect their enrichment item from another lion it may pin its ears back (body language) and add a verbal snarl to drive the point home to the other lion.
Some body language you see, is part of expressing territorial ownership of a nesting site or are seen in breeding and courtship behaviors. Flamingoes are a wonderful example of this type of communication. Not only are flamingoes loud, but during breeding season they march, move their heads from side to side (flagging), sway their necks, and can become very “fluffy” when someone comes near their nest as a warning to stay back.
An example of often-misinterpreted body language at the zoo can be found in Julio, the blue and gold macaw. When his feathers are ruffled and fluffed on his head, he is not upset. It actually means that he is happy and wants to be scratched by people he knows (flock mates).
However, not all behaviors where animals are moving their bodies signify a special communication to a group member. Just like humans, animals do things with their body just for the fun of it or because it feels good. For example, the ground hornbills enjoy sunbathing and dust bathing. They will spread their wings out and lay in an awkward position. Thick-billed parrots will often hang from the mesh by their beak, dangling their feet and vocalizing. They are not stuck, but performing a common behavior for the species. Tawny frogmouths will open their wings and turn their head upside down after a hose bath by the keepers. You will also notice our older red kangaroo Obi stretched out in the sun at odd angles as he settles in for a long nap (often misinterpreted by guests that he is sick).
On your next visit to the zoo, watch the body language of the animals. Can you interpret what they are trying to say to their exhibit mate using their body? Or are they simply hanging from the mesh to get the morning sunshine? Remember, there is a lot more to an animal’s communication than just body language. Did you hear the ruffed lemurs making their loud territorial call or the male lion or jaguar roaring? The best interpreters for the art of an individual animal’s communication are zookeepers who care for them every day.