Wildlife TV

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Nonverbal communication between humans and animals

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.

 

Pointing

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!

~Sofia.


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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Bubbles & Bella: A unique friendship

Friendship is an alliance between two individuals in which there is some sort of affection involved. Most friendships occur between animals of the same species or between humans and other species (e.g. pets) but sometimes we hear about two individuals with a dark past forming a peculiar bond and we can’t help but feeling all fuzzy on the inside.

This is the story of Bubbles, a female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and Bella, a female black Labrador Retriever (Canis lupus familiaris).

Bubbles is 32-year-old and lives in South Carolina, United States of America, in the Myrtle Beach Safari. She was rescued in 1983 from the slaughter of her family by poachers looking for ivory. Bella, the black Labrador, was left behind by her owner, a contractor that was hired to build a pool at the reserve in 2007.

Together they love to jump and play in the water, the big elephant will pick up the ball with her trunk and throw it out and Bella loves to fetch it back and ride on Bubble’s back.

Check out the amazing photos below or the video from Youtube.
 


 

Bubbles and Bella, the female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the black labrador are best friends and love the water.

Bubbles and Bella, the female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the black labrador are best friends and love the water.

Bubbles and Bella, the female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the black labrador are best friends.

Bubbles and Bella, the female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the black labrador are best friends and love the water.

Bubbles and Bella, the female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the black labrador are best friends and love the water.

Bubbles and Bella, the female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the black labrador are best friends and love the water.

Bubbles and Bella, the female African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the black labrador are best friends and love the water.

 

Até à próxima!

~Sofia.

 

If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our News category.
Previous News entries:
Chinese Zoo tries to pass off dog as an African Lion
Elephants avoid a full moon when being naughty
What perfume to wear on an African safari
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Chinese Zoo tries to pass off dog as an African Lion

One of the my favourite places to go visit as a kid was the Zoo. I don’t like seeing animals in captivity but when growing up in Europe there’s not many other options to see African animals. As long as the animals are being treated properly and the zoo providing an educational program for the visitors I like to think they are helping our planet by making sure the younger generations sees and falls in love with the species and, hopefully, later on help out in conservation and ecology projects.

But things can go wrong if the zoo is not properly managed or like the following one in China, tries to deceive the visitors.

A zoo in a park in Louhe, situated in the central province of Henan, China, decided that not having an African lion should not be a reason to not display an African lion.. Instead they found it fitting to put a Tibetan Mastiff in the enclosure and just call it a lion. Hopefully no one would notice right? At least not until the dog started barking..

I’ve seen many lions in captivity and in the wild and if there is something I can assure you is that African lions do not bark.. They might roar, growl and sometimes even meow, but they definitely do not woof..

Check out below the poor dog that was chosen to work as a lion substitute.

 

Tibetan Mastiff playing the role of an African Lion at the Louhe Zoo in China.

Tibetan Mastiff playing the role of an African Lion at the Louhe Zoo in China.
Photo Credits

 

It is definitely a pretty dog but this is how an African lion (Panthera leo) is supposed to look like:

 

Male Lion (Panthera leo), the king of the jungle, wandering around the savannah

 

And if you think that the Chinese staff at the zoo decided that having an animal posing as another animal was enough, you are very wrong.
They also had a white fox pretending to be a Leopard, dogs pretending to be wolves and rats as snakes.

I’m shocked at how they thought any of these trades would fool anyone..

Their excuse was that the lion and the leopard were both away on a breeding program and would be back soon and in the meanwhile the dog and the fox were filling in for them. I wonder what was their excuse for the rats posing as snakes..

Such a strange strange planet we live in..

 

Até à próxima.

~Sofia.

 

If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our News category.
Previous News entries:
Elephants avoid a full moon when being naughty
What perfume to wear on an African safari
Adam Sandler attacked by cheetah in South Africa
7 Comments »