Animal Communication

Animal Communication

Do animals communicate emotion?

Animal behavior specialists continue to debate whether expression should be considered signs of emotion, related to internal physiological changes. Some maintain that it is more useful to consider the expressions as simply communicative signals, and many studies have done that, describing only what animals do. However, Dr. Ekman believes this is a false dichotomy and that “...we don't have to choose whether an expression is part of an emotion or communicative signal. In reality, it is both.” (Ekman, 1998).

For those who posit animal emotions do exist, they are believed to be communicated to one another through a variety of cues. In addition to learning more about interspecies communication, we're also expanding our awareness and understanding of intraspecies communication abilities, such as between humans and dogs.

When do animals communicate?

Animal communication tactics are most frequently noted during situations revolving around basic survival needs (e.g., hunting, protecting from predators, mating, etc.). Especially in more social species, communication can be very complex and nuanced (in some instances looking more familiar to human language than we previously imagined).

How do animals communicate?

Current animal research suggests that many animals communicate with a variety of signals including:

  • visual cues (eye behavior, facial expressions, body postures/movements)
  • auditory cues (vocalizations)
  • tactile cues (touch/physical contact)
  • chemical cues (odors/scent and pheromones)

How do animals use facial expressions to communicate?

While created to study human expression, Dr. Ekman's Facial Action Coding System (FACS) has served an important role in the study of animal emotions and facial expressions. His groundbreaking anatomical system for identifying facial movement in humans has been adapted for an array of animal species, including various primates, dogs, cats, and horses.

While the various animal FACS systems do not make direct inferences about underlying emotions, the observable objective measurements made possible by these systems provide promising platforms for future research further investigating the relationship between animal facial expressions and emotion.

Interspecies: facial expression communication within the same species

Facial expressions are used to communicate both within and between species. As humans, we are constantly communicating with many different types of facial expressions, both consciously and unconsciously. Our knowledge of how other (nonhuman) animals communicate with the face is currently expanding. One recent example is the finding that sun bears communicate by copying each other's facial expressions. Known as facial mimicry, this is a complex social skill previously thought to be reserved primarily to humans, and some apes.

Recent data has also expanded our knowledge of the complexity of facial expression of emotion communicated by primates. The coding of facial anatomy and expression within humans and chimpanzees has shown striking similarities, leading to greater comparability of emotional expressions across species.

Image credit: Emotional communication in primates: implications for neurobiology. (2005)