Wildlife TV

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Nonverbal communication between humans and animals

on October 12, 2013

Animal cognition is one of my favourite scientific areas of study. It helps us understand what cognitive abilities animals in general or specific species possess and how they affect their behaviour. Comparative psychology or comparative cognition then compares animals’ cognitive skills with humans’ cognitive skills and often we end up with the media over simplifying headlines with things like “Chimpanzees smarter than humans“.


Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is defined as the transfer of information between individuals through ways that don’t involve the use of language. This communication is passed by means of visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic cues usually between members of the same species.

Humans are experts at reading and interpreting non verbal communication; we’ve been using it to communicate with each other for thousands of years. Being able to convey what you want without using sound is a great asset when hunting, chasing, tracking and stalking prey.

Nowadays humans don’t really rely on being quiet to be able to acquire food but the majority of the daily human communication is still nonverbal. We use hand gestures, eye gaze, body posture, clothing, facial expressions, among many others, to transmit feelings, emotions, orders, directions and much more.

We take it for granted that when we smile people understand that we are happy and when we cry people perceive us as sad. We rely on body language, pointing and gazing for most of our directional communication.



That children are capable of understanding what adults mean when they point to the food plate and ask “Do you want some?” is not a surprise. We evolved this way over millions and millions of years of social activity and constant group communication and babies already understand instinctively from very early in their development what pointing means.

That nonhuman animals are able to understand the information we are trying to transmit when we point is a complete different matter.

Most animals don’t have the need to interact with us to a level in which, to understand human hand gestures, might be beneficial for them in terms of survival, however, there is a species that the high level of coexistence with humans over thousands of years led to them being able to comprehend us much better than any other species. Of course I’m talking about dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Even chimpanzees fail at being able to understand pointing and gazing cues.

Animals that understand human nonverbal communication such as pointing are a rare thing.

Our canine friends are one of the only animals on our planet capable of understanding humans to a degree that if there’s a food item hidden and two available options, they will wait for a visual cue from the human to locate the food. They are even capable of using pointing to help us locate something like in the case of hunting dogs. Surprisingly, one of our closest living relatives, the Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is incapable of performing the same feat.

Interestingly enough wolves (Canis lupus), the closest relatives to dogs, don’t seem capable of using the same system to achieve a food reward. This is most probably due to their almost non-existent coexistence with humans over thousands of years, unlike dogs.


Nonverbal communication in wild animals

So you might think that the only reason there is a species on our planet capable of understanding subtle facial and gestural cues from humans happened due to years and years of the specialised breeding of canines in order to achieve individuals capable of understanding us faster and better. That is the main reason however recent research showed that African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) are also capable of understanding what pointing means.

Click the following videos to check out the research in action. Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Video 4.

Humans didn’t really have much influence on the evolutionary biology of elephants or their cognitive capabilities’ development over millions of years so why do they have this innate ability to understand what is meant when we use gestural communication?

Elephants and humans are not that different from each other from a social perspective. Both species form friendships that last a lifetime, take care of their young and family, show altruistic behaviour sometimes towards humans, they mourn their dead such as we do and are even capable of using tools to achieve goals or just for pleasure (such as canvas painting).

Their “extra member”, the trunk, which allows them to forage, feed, socialise and scan for danger, is also used to inform other members of the group of a certain place, usually to make them pay attention to specific areas. For that matter it’s not such a big surprise that when we use our arms and hands to point at an object or a direction, they are capable of interpreting and inferring the meaning behind the gesture.

Hope you liked today’s entry.

Até à próxima!


If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Research category.
Previous Research entries:
Adventures with the sleeping Elephant
Elephants avoid a full moon when being naughty
What perfume to wear on an African safari

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