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Introduction to Animal Behavior

Author(s): Deanne Erdmann, MS

Animal Communication

Communication occurs when one organism passes along some type of information (signal) to another, generating a response. Animals may use visual, auditory (sound), tactile (touch), chemical or electrical signals to communicate with one another.  Transmitting and receiving these signals generates an external or internal response in the organism. Some examples are: 

  • Pheromones, chemical signals used for communication, are especially common in mammals and insects. Bees use pheromones to determine social rank and to initiate reproduction. The context of the signal is important. For example, male honeybees will respond to the pheromones of the queen while they are outside the hive (where they can mate), but are unaffected by the pheromones while inside the hive. Ants also use pheromones to mark a trails to food sources.
  • Karl von Frisch was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1973 for his theory that honey bees communicate by a dance language. This theory was presented first by von Frisch in the 1940s. He suggested that worker bees are able to communicate direction and distance to a food source through movements described as "round dances and waggle dances."
  • Birds use song to recognize and attract other members of their species, to warn of predators and to defend their territories. Some birds, such as killdeer, will leave the nest and perform an elaborate "broken wing" display to attract a predator away from its nest.
  • Niko Tinbergren demonstrated in his research that visual displays of stickleback fish initiate reproduction. The red belly of the male stickleback attracts a female, who adopts a head up posture. In response, the male makes a series of zigzag motions, leading the female to his nest where she deposits her eggs. Finally, the male enters the nest and fertilizes the eggs.