Howls, butt sniffs, and pee sprays: understanding animal languages

Howls, butt sniffs, and pee sprays: understanding animal languages

All Animals Have Their Own Language

Animal language has been a source of fascination for centuries, long before the sounds of dolphins or parrots were recorded. Recent research has shown that animals communicate in a plethora of ways, from scent marks to vocal calls to complex dance sequences. But how do we measure the level of self-awareness in animal communication?

One way to measure self-awareness is through the so-called “mirror test,” which commits regarding animals recognizing their reflection in a mirror. Elephants, magpies, chimpanzees, pigs, and many other species have demonstrated self-awareness in this manner. But even with this, there are still problems.

First, some animals may not mind having a sticker placed on their skin, thus skewing results of the mirror test. Second, some cultures might not be so comfortable with making eye contact with their reflection, again skewing test results. Lastly, the mirror test doesn’t really work for animals whose other senses are more important than sight.

As research into animal languages continues to evolve, it’s becoming more and more apparent that many species rely heavily on scents for communication. Dolphins, parrots, squirrel monkeys, bats, and more have been found to use individual sounds or scents to recognize one another or to refer to themselves by name. Yet other species, such as wolves, coyotes, and great tits, use harmonic howls to share information about their identity and relationships. Additionally, many animals—from elephants to wolves to parrots—have their own unique “dialects,” much like languages spoken by humans.

The mirror test has helped us to understand the level of self-awareness in animals, but there are still problems with methods that presume human capacities. To move forward in our understanding of animal subjectivity, we should strive to develop research practices with the animals themselves and recognize the power imbalance in our current research methods.

Despite this imbalance, amazing things have been discovered about animal languages over the years, and hopefully with more

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