An exhibition at Bern's Natural History Museum demonstrates the wide range of techniques that animals use to communicate. Entitled "Signals - how animals make themselves understood", the exhibition shows that our animal cousins are never at a loss for words.This content was published on May 4, 2001 - 11:10
Using audio, visual, olfactory and tactile methods, the communication of animals can be every bit as subtle, colourful or forceful as human speech. Every grunt, growl, chirp, scented marking or brilliantly displayed plumage speaks volumes to warn, seduce or express anger or fear.
One example of animal signalling involves a form of deception. Referring to a recording of the melodic singing of a bird filling the exhibition hall, Marcel Güntert, the director of the Natural History Museum, translated the message this way:
"These birds use different sounds to make the receivers think that there are several birds in a given territory. The message is that this is my territory - keep out."
Güntert says experiments have shown that with one song type, other birds are more likely to intrude into a specific territory than when the occupant sings different songs.
"All this shows that animals can, by using signals, manipulate other animals in a which benefits the sender."
The exhibition also has examples of how animals use visual techniques to communicate such as the seductive plumages of birds or the bright colours which adorn poisonous frogs. There's also a chamber of scents where visitors can smell samples of olfactory animal signals.
Güntert says there are several examples where researchers think that animals can communicate with a predator.
"For instance if shore birds resting on a beach spot a predator, they expose the underparts of their wings to signal to the predator that it has been seen. The predator gets the message."
Güntert sees parallels between certain types of animal communication and the commercial world.
"Signalling among animals is an attempt by the sender to change the behaviour of the receiver. Advertising is an attempt by the advertiser to influence the behaviour of consumers to buy things they don't need."
by Paul Sufrin
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