1974: Delwyn G. Berrett - Communication among Animals

1974: Delwyn G. Berrett - Communication among Animals

D BerretJoining the faculty of Church College of Hawaii in 1964, Delwyn G. Berrett gave the twelfth McKay lecture a decade later. With both B.S. (11957) and M.S. (1958) degrees from Brigham Young University, he completed his Ph.D. in zoology at Louisiana State University in 1962. His interest in vertebrate biology greatly resulted in a sizeable increase in the holdings of the College's natural science collection during his tenure as its curator. A recipient of a Natural Science Foundation Fellowship to study in Puerto Rico in 1970, Berrett was an active scholar and research. Among other callings in the Church, Berrett served as scoutmaster and stake missionary. He and his wife Francine have five children: Ross, William, Leilani, Laura, and John.



It was ten years ago this month, that during an Idaho snowstorm, I received a phone call from Long Beach, California. On the other end of the line was Dr. Owen J. Cook, then secretary to the Pacific Board of Education. On that occasion Dr. Cook offered me the chance to go to Hawaii and teach at the Church College. As I looked out the window and watched the snow swirling into drifts, I had visions of palm trees swaying to a gentle breeze. A few months later that vision became reality.

I have been here at CCH long enough now to appreciate what an honor it is to deliver the David O. McKay address. Likewise, I have been here long enough to recognize the influence of that great prophet on our institution. I realize, therefore, that anything done in his name must be done well. This recognition has made this past month of preparation a very difficult period of time for me. It has had its ups and downs. Now that time has run out and I can prepare no more, I can only hope and pray that what transpires during this hour will be worthy of his good name. I want to express appreciation to my family for their understanding and love during a time when they have frequently had to get along without me and to my students for their patience during a time when they have received less attention than they deserved.

Can Animals Communicate?

Looking back into my early childhood I cannot recall a time when I was not fascinated by the wonders of nature. I was a loner in those early days and my choice of a place to be was in the wood, seated on a log beneath a tree or sprawled out on the grass with nothing to do but watch the business of nature. I became well acquainted with and gained a love and respect for the birds and animals I met there.

In my office there hangs a picture. It is a winter scene; the fields are covered with snow; the sun is about to set. To some this picture is bleak and dreary. To me it is alive and beautiful. It is hanging there because of the memories it recalls. When I look at it, I remember the days when as a small boy, upon arriving home from school, I'd put on my boots, my heaviest coat, mittens, and cap, and head out across the snow-covered fields toward the river. I would approach the river with great care and, upon selecting a rather inconspicuous spot, I would seat myself and wait for what night happen. Sometimes I would be disappointed. But frequently I would suddenly find myself in the center of a bustling spectacle. There I was, just me, and several hundred thousand ducks. Ducks were everywhere; some were coming; some were going. The skies, the river, and the fields were alive with ducks. Then suddenly danger was sensed and, in a matter of moments, I was sitting alone by the river.

I remember the autumn afternoons when I used to lie on my back upon our front lawn and stare into the sky. It was early autumn; the grass was still green; the leaves were just beginning to fall. But there was definitely a hint of fall in the air. Suddenly high in the sky, almost out of sight, I could see a bird. It was a swallow and it was moving southward. It zigged and it zagged in a typical swallow-like fashion, but there was no doubt about it, it was moving in a southerly direction. Then I saw another, and another, and then I realized that the entire sky was filled with swallows all moving south.

I used to be fascinated by ants as a boy. On occasion I would take a quart jar and scoop out a portion of an ant hill. Putting a lid on the jar I would spend hours watching the ants as they would reconstruct themselves a home. Some ants would be buried in the depths of the far, but they always made their way to the top. Their eggs were gathered together and stored properly and soon chaos was turned into an organized colony.

How were those ants able to construct a colony out of a jumbled mass of dirt, sticks, ants, and eggs? Can we assume that the unorganized individual efforts of many ants will result in an organized colony? Will multiples of disorganization add up to organization? Or dare we postulate that somehow these animals, as far down on the totem pole of living beings as some may place them, can in some manner actually communicate and coordinate their efforts?

How do we explain that on that particular autumn afternoon, every swallow in the county was moving, and in the same southerly direction? Was it purely coincidental or could they have somehow reacted to a signal they all understood?

Why would a hundred thousand ducks vacate a spot simultaneously? Can we assume that they all saw me at the same precise moment? Or do you suppose that among the quacking noises that to me were unintelligible, there came loud and clear from some duck, somewhere, a peculiar quack that they all recognized.

Following the Second World War, British dairies began capping their milk bottles with thin aluminum tops. Soon thereafter, in the Midlands of England, a tiny bird known as a tit to the British, a bird we Americans would call a chickadee, discovered that he could easily peck a hole in these caps and that the contents beneath were to his liking. Within two years tits all over England, from Scotland to the English Channel, had, to the expense of their human neighbors, learned how to obtain a morning drink of cream (Bruun 222). Is it possible that tits can communicate with one another and teach each other their discoveries? On the other hand, is there any other explanation?

This ability to communicate, to relate one's experiences and thoughts to another, is frequently thought by some to be a uniquely human attribute, one of those traits that distinguish man from beast. Certainly no animal has reached the sophistication of man in this regard, but, within his own sphere, at his own level, an animal can communicate with others of his own kind.

I would like to divide my talk today into three parts. First, I would like to explore the range of animal communication, citing a number of examples of the various means whereby our animal neighbors communicate. Then briefly I would like to illustrate what happens in nature when proper communication patterns falter and break down. And lastly I hope that we might be able to extract a lesson for our own lives from observing in animals the tragic results accruing from faulty communication patterns.

The subject of animal communication is a relatively new field. In recent years, as a result of certain practical aspects of this type of knowledge, the field has developed and blossomed. Many interesting aspects of animal behavior have recently come to light.

Methods of Communication

Although we usually think of communication in terms of what we see and hear, it actually involves all the senses. This is no less true of our animal neighbors who utilize a variety of means to communicate with each other. The methods used by animals are categorized according to the type of signal used. Basically these signals are of four types: (1) acoustic--sound waves detected by the ear; (2) visual--light waves detected by the eye; (3) chemical-- substances that can be picked up by the senses of taste or smell; and (4) tactile--meaningful signals resulting from actual physical contact. The type of signal most frequently used by a particular species is directly correlated to the sensitivity of their receptors. Hence an animal with keen eyesight will usually use visual signals, whereas one with poor eyesight, but a keen sense of hearing will use acoustic signals.

Acoustic Signals

Certainly one of the best examples of acoustic communication can be seen in the song of a bird. Why does a bird sing? Is he trying to tell anyone something? The answer is yes. His song is not a meaningless babble of sounds that is unintelligible to any other individual. His song has a twofold meaning and can be easily understood by all other individuals of his species in his vicinity. To all other males, his song is a declaration of territory and notifies them that their presence therein will not be tolerated. To the females within the range of his voice, his song is an invitation. To them he is advertising his charms and is informing them that he is available. Later, when the business of building a nest and raising young begins, he sings no more. His message is no longer needed and his energy is needed elsewhere.

Some birds do not sing, but certainly they have equal need of territories and mates. It is now known, for example, that the drumming of a woodpecker on a tree carries a similar message to other members of his species.

A few years ago I spent a day in the field with a friend of mine, Dr. Jared Verner, now at Central Washington State College. Dr. Verner was working on variations in the songs of white-crowned sparrows. He had traveled all over the San Francisco Bay area, from Point Reyes to San Jose, recording the songs of this species. On that particular spring day, we drove north from Berkeley to an area south of Point Reyes. After spotting a singing male (we will call him male 1), we stopped the car and made a recording of his song. Some time later we located another male (male 2); again we recorded his song. Then a microphone attached to a long cord was taken by one of us and placed at the base of a bush near where male 2 was singing. Then Dr. Verner replayed the recording of the song of male 1. Male 2 reacted immediately and flew to the [site] of the microphone, attempting to drive male 1 out of his territory. He may have been bewildered at the peculiar appearance of his competitor, but he persisted in his aggressive behavior toward the microphone until the recording was turned off. Then he flew off, completely satisfied that he had succeeded in driving away the intruder. This individual reacted to an acoustic signal, and, regardless of the source of that sound, his behavior toward it would be the same. Later, we further tormented male 2 by playing over the same microphone, under the same bush, a recording of his own song, recorded just a short time before. His reaction was precisely the same. On the other hand, when we played the song of a white-crowned sparrow recorded near San Jose, male 2 totally ignored it. To our ears the two songs were nearly identical. but to him the signal was so different that it represented no threat to his territorial claim. Is it conceivable then that animals of the same species residing in different geographical areas speak different dialects?

The bell shrike of Africa, noted for its brief yet bell-like musical song, sings for a different reason.

Obvious and conspicuous though its song is, many quite observant people have lived in East Africa for years without realizing that the performance comes from two singers rather than one. Not until the listener happens to get between the two birds does he realize that the first few notes of the song come from one direction and the rest from another, yet with an almost incredible precision of timing. (Thorpe 70)

This phenomenon is known as "duetting" and is performed by the male and female of a mated pair (Thorpe 70). Its function is to maintain contact between the members of a pair in an area where otherwise they could easily lose sight of each other (Thorpe 70).

The song is not the only acoustic signal produced by birds. In various species different calls may indicate alarm, hunger, distress, or may be a signal for a gathering. For example, Dr. and Mrs. Hubert Frings, formerly at the University of Hawaii, found that they could attract a crowd of cawing crows within six minutes by loudly playing the rallying call that crows give when they encounter an owl (123). On the other hand, man has learned that a recording or the alarm notes of certain species will cause a total evacuation from the area by all members of the species (Frings and Frings 123). Man has capitalized upon this knowledge, and he frequently uses this method to dispel large flocks of roosting starlings. This method is also used at some major airports, and if flocks of starling are in the vicinity of the runways, recordings of their alarm notes are played at regular intervals.

The albatrosses, or gooney birds, on Midway Island have for many years posed a similar problem to Navy planes stationed there. A midair collision with a large albatross could have dire consequences, and though to my knowledge there has never yet been a loss of life or plane due to albatrosses, many missions have had to be cancelled as a result of gooney bird damage (Aldrich 838). The Navy was justifiably concerned over the matter and hence a long search for a solution began (Aldrich 838). Biologists studied the bird thoroughly, attempting to discover and record its alarm note (Aldrich 846). To their dismay and the Navy's disappointment, they came to the conclusion that the albatross has no natural enemies and hence is afraid of nothing. Therefore he has no need for an alarm note. The Navy was therefore forced to turn elsewhere for an answer to the problem.

We have already mentioned the geographical variation that can be noticed in the songs of some birds. Is it possible that individual variation may occur also: I think we could best demonstrate this phenomenon by taking a stroll amid a vast sea bird colony at a time when the young are in the nest and being fed by their parents. Anyone who has visited such a colony is well acquainted with the constant din that is characteristic of that place. Yet if you should pick up a youngster and allow him to squawk, his parents will be there in seconds. How they could even hear his cry is hard enough to imagine, let alone recognize it as that of their offspring.

It is even possible for man to become so intimately acquainted with certain animals that he can recognize the calls of individuals. A very close friend of mine, Dr. Douglas A. Lancaster of Cornell University, did his doctoral dissertation on the life history of a certain species of tinamou. The tinamou is a pheasant-like bird that dwells on the jungle floors of tropical America. Although they are quite common, they are very secretive and extremely difficult to observe. I spent a year in tinamou country, and although I heard them every day, I could easily count the number of tinamous I've seen on one hand. Dr. Lancaster, on the other hand, mastered the tinamous within a specific study area by becoming so familiar with them that he could recognize by sound every individual bird that resided there. He was therefore able to plot the movements of each individual within the area by listening to their calls. At any given moment he knew exactly where each tinamou was located.

An excellent example of acoustic communication among animals is provided by the porpoise or dolphin, an animal that actually "sees" with its ears. The porpoise produces sharp, percussive clicking sounds, either singly or in rapid succession reaching several hundred per second (Conly 417). By the nature of the returning echo, the animal can determine the direction, size, and distance of the object. Dr. Kenneth Norris in studies done at Sea Life Park, found that blindfolded porpoises could, with a few errors, recognize the difference between 2 1/2 and 2 1/4 inch balls, a difference that is hardly distinguishable to the human eye (Conly 397, 417). This ability is known to biologists as echolocation and is found in some other groups of animals as well. Does one porpoise, however, communicate with another by acoustic signals? All scientific research seems to indicate that this animal communicates at a high level of sophistication. In fact Dr. John C. Lilly, an expert on the animal, has such a high opinion of the porpoise's ability, that in his book entitled Man and Dolphin (1961), he begins with the following statement: "Within the next decade or two the human species will establish communication with another species: nonhuman, alien, possibly extraterrestrial, more probably marine" (qtd. in Conly 422). Dr. Lilly, of course, is referring to the porpoise.

Dr. Jarvis Bastian, psychologist at the University of California at Davis, performed an experiment with two bottle-nosed porpoises, a male named Buzz and a female known as Doris:

Each had two underwater levers to press, one on the right, one on the left. Dr. Bastian cued the animals with an auto headlight; a steady light meant 'push the right lever,' whereas a flashing light meant 'push the left lever.' . . . Simple enough. . . the two dolphins quickly mastered the difference between steady and flashing, right and left. The reward, each time they got it right: a fish apiece.

Now Dr. Bastian introduced a new complication. When the light came on, Doris had to wait. If she pushed first --no fish. Only after Buzz pressed his lever was she to press hers. Again the dolphins mastered the trick.

Then came the last step: Dr. Bastian put a partition between the porpoises. They could still hear one another underwater, but only Doris could see the headlight. When Dr. Bastian turned it on, she stationed herself in front of her levers and waited politely, as she had been taught. At the same time, however, she gave off a burst of underwater noises--and somehow, out of sight behind the partition, Buzz knew which of his levers to push. (qtd. in Conly 417-418)

Dr. Bastian himself is not willing to conclude that Doris, in her own language, told Buzz to hit a particular lever, but he is unable to come up with any other explanation (Conly 418).

Visual Signals

Visual signals are used by many organisms as a means of communicating between individuals of the same species. Very frequently visual patterns are used simply as an aid in recognition of others of the same species.

For example, down in the depths of the ocean, far below the limit to which light can penetrate, reside a number of species of fishes that possess light-bearing organs known as photophores. Many unusual and bizarre functions have been attributed to these organs, but it now appears that their sole function is recognition between individuals of the same species.

Visual signals are also used in recognizing differences between the sexes. Since reproduction is such a vital process in nature, the success of the species depending upon the reproductive success, elaborate procedures and patterns have developed to ensure that this process does take place efficiently and economically. In simpler terms, the female of a species must be able [to] extract from the vast array of sights around her those visual signals that represent the male of her species. Conversely the male must be endowed with the proper equipment in order to present the correct signals. In summary, the proper signals correctly interpreted by the right individuals are imperative to the success of a species.

Many species change their visual appearances as the breeding season approaches, invariably reverting from a duller to a more gaudy attire. Frequently this change occurs only in the male since he is the one who must send the proper visual signal. A male who for one reason or another should fail to adopt his breeding attire would likewise fail to obtain a mate, since he is unable to communicate. Although birds represent the best example of this type of communication, it by no means is restricted to that group. For example, there are fishes that adopt a breeding attire and deer and elk develop elaborate antlers each season.

Some species of birds, for example the red-winged blackbird, do not change attires from season to season, but remain the same throughout the year. The male redwing has at his disposal a bright red shoulder patch, that, during most of the year, is rather obscure and well hidden. When the breeding season arrives, however, he displays it fervently, assuming a posture that is recognizable to the female. Should a normal healthy male bird be plucked of his shoulder feathers at this time of year, though he were to perform the courtship procedure to perfection, he would for the lack of a few red feathers end up mateless.

There occurs throughout much of Central and South America a bird known as the royal flycatcher. Under normal conditions in the field an observer of this bird may find it difficult to imagine where it got the name "royal," for it is a plain brown nondescript bird with nothing distinctive about it except for its long crest feathers--and even these are not readily seen. If one is lucky enough, however, to observe a male raise his crest feather, the reason for his regal name becomes obvious. He is immediately transformed from a plain brownish bird into an object if great beauty, his erect spread crest feathers resembling the tail of a peacock. What is the reason for this gaudy appendage? To communicate with a female.

Undoubtedly, the extreme in gaudy attire is achieved by the birds of paradise of New Guinea and northern Australia. This group of creatures forms the "most ornate and colorful assemblage of birds in the world. In the male birds of paradise the development of special feathers for the attraction of the opposite sex reaches its peak, not only in varied bright colors but in weird and fanciful shapes" (Austin 232).

Closely related to the birds of paradise and living side by side with them is an interesting group of birds known as bowerbirds. Comparatively the bowerbirds are colorless and plain and totally devoid of ornate structures. Since this bird is lacking in natural beauty, the male makes up for his deficiency by constructing an object of beauty--his bower. Much effort and time is spent by the male in building this edifice, designed for no other purpose than to convince a passing female that he is no ordinary male, but one worthy of her attention. Bowerbirds fall into three categories according to [the] type of bower they construct. These are: (1) the stage makers, whose bower is simply an area 3 to 5 feet in diameter that is cleared of all debris and covered with fresh leaves. These leaves are continually replaced as they wither; (2) maypole builders, whose bower is constructed of sticks and grass around a central tree from which it spreads to include neighboring brush and small trees. These bowers, ranging from 4 to 9 feet in height, are decorated with fresh flowers; and (3) avenue builders, whose bowers are more intricate, though not as massive as those of the maypole builders:

The male avenue builder starts his bower by flooring a cleared space about 4 feet in diameter with a mat of well-trodden sticks and twigs several inches thick. In the center of this he erects two parallel walls of upright sticks firmly implanted and entwined together and sometimes arched over at the top. . . . The walls are just far enough apart for the bird to walk through without brushing the sides with its wings. The birds decorate this playground with all sorts of strange objects such as pebbles, bleached bones, shells, leaves, and flowers.

Where these birds come in contact with man, such objects as toothbrushes, silverware, cigarette packages, etc., are included.

The late Dr. E. Thomas Gilliard, an expert on these birds, noted an interesting phenomenon that he referred to as the "transferral effect" (315). Concerning it he states:

It is a striking fact that the better 'architects' and 'artists' among bowerbirds are the species with the least ornamental feathering and the dullest colors. That is to say, there is an inverse ratio between the development of the bower and the development of courtship plumage. . . in the optical stimulation of his mate. (315)

Dr. Gilliard in essence believes that in certain species the communicative functions of the gaudy plumage have been transferred to the appearance of the bower, and the degree to which the gaudy plumage has been reduced is directly proportional to the degree to which the appearance of the bower has been increased.

Although visual signals have reached the ultimate development in communicating between the sexes, they certainly are not restricted to this function alone. Some visual signals indicate aggression or submission. Our dog, for example, when he has been scolded for wrongdoing or has been told to go outside, which he prefers not to do, will roll over on his back, all fours extended, in a posture of total submission. He is indicating his inferiority to us and at the same time, is pleading for mercy. This type of behavior and signal he also uses if he encounters a larger dog. If he recognizes the superiority of the other dog, and does not wish to challenge it, he rolls over on his back. The extremely aggressive behavior of the larger dog immediately ceases. He has been assured by our dog that his rank has been recognized and now they can reside side by side peacefully, no battles being necessary.

Visual signals may be used in pleading for food or alternately in indicating the presence of food. It is now clearly known that the red spot on the lower mandible of a herring gull serves as a visual signal to the chick indicating food. He therefore pecks at the red spot and this pecking by the chick stimulates the adult to regurgitate food. Niko Tinbergen, a famous behaviorist, constructed a number of cardboard dummies simulating the heads of adult herring gulls. Only one of the dummies was made to look exactly like the head of a gull; all of the remaining were altered somewhat. All of the dummies had red spots painted on them, although some were put in ridiculous positions. Tinbergen then tested the reactions of newly hatched gulls and found that all the dummies worked. The chicks would peck at the red spots on any of the dummies regardless of the position of the spot or the nature of the dummy. In fact he found that they would also peck at a small red stick that had no resemblance to a gull whatsoever. On the other hand when Tinbergen presented to the chicks a dummy of a gull's head that was perfect in every detail except for the lack of the red spot, there was no reaction (Tinbergen 186-210).

Chemical Signals

Chemical signals are used by those animals that have particularly keen senses of smell or taste. Many of our mammals, including the domesticated dog and cat, rely primarily upon this sense for an awareness of events occurring around them. Many insects as well use chemical signals. This type of chemical released into the environment to cause a certain behavior is known as a pheromone. You have all seen ant trails. Perhaps you might have wondered, as I used to, how the ants maintain a precise trail. Although no visible landmarks appear, the trail never falters. If there is a crook in it this morning, the same crook will be there this afternoon. The ants are following [a] chemical trail, a trail of pheromones, laid down by those ants that have gone on before. The pheromone dissipates quite rapidly, however, and the trails must be continually renewed.

The other day I was helping my wife clean the front room by vacuuming the floor. Suddenly behind the curtains I discovered an ant trail coming from the outside, over the window sill, and then under the carpet. Not being particularly fond of ants in the house, I began to vacuum up the trail. Any ant making an appearance on the window sill found himself in my vacuum bag. Then I decided to try a little experiment. I wanted to see if I could keep the window sill free of ants long enough for the pheromone trail to evaporate. After what I assumed to be a sufficient period of time, I sat down and watched. Now the ants approaching the sill appeared to be lost as they wandered aimlessly in search of a familiar chemical. Lest anyone should think this method may be the answer to his ant problems, however, I should report that a subsequent check of the sill an hour or so later found the ants busily going to and fro as if nothing had ever happened.

The female gypsy moth produces a potent pheromone known by the chemical name of bombykol. This chemical can attract male moths from several miles down wind. Since the caterpillars of this moth are destructive, chemists have developed a synthetic form of the pheromone known as disparlure. Released into the woodlands, it tends to confuse the males or it can be used to lure the males into traps.

Tactile Signals

Tactile communication differs from the others in that the sender of the message must be in physical contact with the receiver. Frequently this type of communication is associated with the courtship process and the relationship between members of a mated pair. Baboons are known to groom each other, a behavior pattern that lessens tensions within the group. Birds of a mated pair are frequently observed preening one another in such a way, that to an observer, they appear to be displaying genuine affection. On the other hand in the dark interior of a hive a returning bee, having found a source of food, by tactile communication can notify her fellow bees not only of her discovery, but also the quality, direction, and distance of the food supply. This amazing discovery was made By the Austrian biologist Karl von Frisch, who just last year received a Nobel Prize for his work on the language of bees. Von Frisch found that a bee with information on a new food source would perform a dance upon entering the hive. Since bees orient by the sun, the direction they face or the angle of the dance indicates the direction of the food source with reference to the sun's position. The degree to which she waggles her abdomen, on the other hand, indicates the distance of the food supply (Von Frisch 69-144).

Combination of Signals

As often as not we find that communication between individuals in nature involves not just one type of signal but a combination of several types. In this regard I will cite one example, one with which I am personally acquainted. It has been my privilege in the last few years to visit Midway Island on two different occasions. The first was simply a collecting trip, but the second was to make a film on the Island's most famous inhabitants, two species of albatrosses, locally known as gooney birds. One is a white bird with a dark back and wings and is known as the Laysan Albatross, while the other, the black-footed albatross, is chocolate brown in color with a whitish area at the base of the bill. These two birds are significant biologically, for it is most unusual to find two closely related species residing side by side as do these two. In fact mixed colonies occur in which members of these two species nest within inches of each other. That the two species can hybridize is proven. Indeed such an individual has found his last resting place in the CCH collection. But they are rare, extremely rare. I personally know of only one other such bird. That hybrids do occur, however, rare as they are, is proof that no physiological or genetic barrier prevents the successful development of an embryo conceived through an interspecific mating. On the other hand, the scarcity of hybrids and the fact that the two species have maintained their distinctness through the years with no dilution of specific characteristics is concrete evidence that some mechanism is involved in preventing interspecific matings. This mechanism must be behavioral. With this idea in mind, Dr. Dean M. Andersen, Dr. Patrick D. Dalton, Col. William J. Clark, Jr., and I went to Midway to film and record the courtship dances of the two species in an effort to see if differences existed. As a casual observer of these dances on my previous trip, I had not noticed any obvious differences. The latter trip, however, yielded different results and we found the courtship procedures of the two species to be readily distinguishable. The basic procedure of the dance, however, is common to both albatrosses. Choosing partners (occasionally more than two will dance together) they begin to bob about each other, encircling one another; bills are brought together and clacked. The birds bow to each other and nod their heads (Rice and Kenyon 532). Two specific stylized behavior patterns are noted in both species. First, as the tempo of the dance increases, one bird (or sometimes both) will extend its wing and pick at the feathers beneath the extended wing. This is called "scapular action" (Rice and Kenyon 529). Second, the climax of the dance is attained when both birds rise on their toes, extend their necks skyward and emit their characteristic calls. This is known as the "sky call" (Rice and Kenyon 528).

Though the basic procedure is similar, when the dances of the two species are compared carefully, differences in style and performance become evident. With the help of the movie camera, we will now take a brief glance at the dance of the Laysan albatross, followed by a similar view of the black-footed albatross, and see if we can note any differences in the visual signals being sent. As the film begins two birds facing one another are seen in scapular action after which they immediately proceed into the sky call. Note that only one wing is extended during scapular action. The tail is held in a normal position and is not cocked. This species is the more reserved and the less aggressive, hence less tactile stimulation. Through much of its courtship dance, this species extends its wings slightly, the degree of the wing extension increases as the tempo of the dance increases. During scapular action, both wings, not just one, are extended. Note that as the dance progresses the tail is cocked. The blackfoot is also more aggressive in its performance, resulting in more bodily contact.

In addition to the differences in visual signals, the sky call differs. The voice of the Laysan albatross is higher pitched and the sky call closely resembles the mooing of a cow. On the other hand, the sky call of the blackfoot is lower pitched and more nasal.

This elaborate courtship pattern has developed for one function only--to ensure that the female albatross can recognize a male of her own species. A multiplicity of signals are used: visual; acoustic; and tactile. Complex and varied signals reduce the possibility of error and increase the integrity of the species. Wasteful hybrid production is eliminated or at least reduced.

Interspecific Communications

So far we have dealt with communication between individuals of the same species. Rightfully this type of communication is the most important, yet in nature it is not unusual within a community for individuals of one species [to] master the signals given by those of a different species. Let me cite two brief examples. Bert Hölldobler of the University of Frankfurt has recently discovered a case of interspecific communication between the wood ant and the rove beetle. The beetles live as parasites in the ant colonies. The host ants feed and groom the beetle larvae as well or better than they do their own young (Hölldobler 86). How do the beetles get away with these shenanigans? They have mastered the ants' language and are able to mimic perfectly his communication signals, both chemical and tactile (Hölldobler 93). So good are they, in fact, that Hölldobler reports that they can often obtain more food than the ant larvae themselves (86).

In Africa an interesting relationship exists between a bird and a mammal. The bird, known as the greater honeyguide, actually leads the mammal, the honey badger, to a bee's nest (Friedmann 554). The African native has capitalized upon this unique relationship and by imitating the voice of the honey badger, can gain the services of a honeyguide (Friedmann 559). This relationship has developed to such a point that this bird will frequently offer its services to a passing man without first being solicited (Friedmann 559). What does the honeyguide gain from this relationship? His dinner of beeswax and grubs (Friedmann 554).

The African native is, by no means, the only man who has successfully intercepted animal signals. The Indians and some early frontiersmen in this country became so familiar with the forests in which they lived that they could read nature like you and I would read a book. By listening and watching carefully they could tell what had happened in the past and frequently predict quite accurately what was going to transpire in the near future.

Communication Failures

We have been exploring the varied facets of animal communication. That animals possess the ability to communicate is without question. Indeed that ability often reaches a surprising level of sophistication. This ability is not only beneficial to those animals endowed with it, but their very lives depend upon its proper usage. In fact the survival and general health of the species itself is directly dependent upon proper communication among its members. Fortunately for the individual and the species of which he is a member, these communication patterns rarely falter. But occasionally it happens and when it does the results can be tragic. The degree of the tragedy is naturally correlated to the nature of the miscommunication. If an isolated individual fails in one regard or another, either to send the proper signals or to correctly interpret signals received, he alone will suffer the consequences. Should that communication failure pertain to courtship, he well fail to reproduce. Should it involve the process of procuring food, he will fail to eat. Though these consequences are dire to the individual, the species will likely be unaffected.

As long as the environment to which a species is accustomed remains unaltered, communication problems of a species-wide nature are rarely encountered. Environments, however, are constantly changing, though under normal circumstances these alterations occur gradually. Gradual change allows the species an opportunity to adapt and to develop communication patterns commensurate to the changes. Enter man on the scene, however, and drastic changes can occur to an environment in a very short period of time. Under these circumstances, communications frequently falter and break down, often with tragic results. There are several different ways these failures may occur and the nature of the breakdown dictates the type of results. I have chosen two examples to illustrate two different types.

When the North American continent was first being settled it was severed from north to south by a vast sea of grass--the Great Plains. In the forests east of the plains lived a woodpecker known as the yellow-shafted flicker. The male of this species is characterized by the presence of two black moustachial streaks on the sides of his face, a red patch on the top of his head, and the shafts of the feathers of the wings and tail are bright yellow. West of the Plains resided a flicker with red feather shafts, red moustachial streaks, and no red spot on the top of the head. This species is known as the red-shafted flicker. As man settled the plains he planted trees. No longer was the Great Plains an effective barrier separating the two species. The eastern species began to move westward as the western species began to move eastward. When the ranges of the two species merged, they began to hybridize. As we analyze the situation today, we find in the central states a population of flickers in which individuals possess a varied assortment of the characteristics of both species. As we move eastward the traits of the western species diminish and the opposite is true as we progress westward. I have personally observed an individual bird as far west as Provo, Utah, that had one black moustache and one red one. What has gone wrong? This is a situation in which communication has occurred when it should not have occurred; signals have been intercepted by individuals of another species who should not have been able to understand them. Is there anything tragic here? To the individual birds involved perhaps not. To some human observers the situation may even appear humorous. To the naturalist, however, there is an air of tragedy about it. We are witnessing the merging of two of nature's products into one large diluted whole. In essence we are seeing the extinction of not one species, but two.

In the preceding example we see what can happen when there is too much communication. Perhaps the tragic nature of communication problems, however, is more obvious in those cases in which communication has ceased. Without question the animal in America history with the most tragic story is the passenger pigeon. When the country was first explored and settled the bird was found to be abundant and hence it became a frequent source of food. Indeed during its day it was the most abundant bird in America and many naturalists believe it to have been the most numerous bird in the whole world. It is no longer; in fact it is but a memory, a blight on American history. The last known living passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoological Park on September 1, 1914. Going back approximately 100 years previous to this tragic date, Alexander Wilson, one of America's early naturalists, tells us of what the bird was once like. He reports of seeing a flock of these pigeons as he was traveling one afternoon towards Frankfort, Kentucky. The birds first appeared at 1:30 in the afternoon and the flock finally passed at 4:00 p.m.

He estimated that flock. . . to be two hundred and forty miles long and a mile wide. . . and to contain two billion, two hundred and thirty million, two hundred and seventy two thousand pigeons. On the supposition that each bird consumed only half a pint of nuts and acorns daily, he reckoned that this column of birds would eat seventeen million, four hundred and twenty-four thousand bushels each day. (Forbush 40)

Unlike most birds that

flock only during migration. . . passenger pigeons were gregarious throughout the year. Nesting was erratic, depending upon the availability of food. Usually when beechnuts were plentiful, the birds nested in Michigan and Pennsylvania; where acorns were abundant, Wisconsin and Minnesota were favored. In 1871 one of the largest nestings ever observed took place in Wisconsin. The pigeons nested in almost every available tree over a strip seventy-five by fifteen miles covering over 850 square miles. Anywhere from five to one-hundred nests were built in each tree.1

One eyewitness to this event gives the following account:

And now arose a roar, compared with which all previous noises ever heard, are but lullabies, and which caused more than one of the expectant and excited party to drop their guns, and seek shelter behind and beneath the nearest trees. . . . Imagine a thousand threshing machines running under full headway, accompanied by as many steamboats groaning off steam, with an equal quota of R. R. trains passing through covered bridges--imagine these missed into a single flock, and you possibly have a faint conception of the terrific roar following the monstrous black cloud of pigeons as they passed in rapid flight in the grey light of morning, a few feet before our faces. . . . The unearthly roar continued, and as flock after flock, in almost endless line succeeded each other, nearly on level with the muzzle of our guns, the contents of a score of double barrels was poured into their dense midst. Hundreds, yes thousands, dropped into the open fields below. Not infrequently a hunter would discharge his piece and load and fire the third and fourth time into the same flock. The slaughter was terrible beyond any description. Our guns became so hot by rapid discharges, we were afraid to load them. Then while waiting for them to cool, lying on the damp leaves, we used [those of us who had them] pistols, while others threw clubs, seldom if ever, failing to bring down some of the passing flock. (qtd. in Schorger Passenger 188-189)

So man pursued and slaughtered the seeming hordes of pigeons, assuming them to be an endless natural resource. In season the "New York market alone would take in 100 barrels a day" (Forbush 42). And so billions turned into millions and the millions were reduced to thousands. Yet, is it possible that man within reason could have exterminated the superabundant pigeon? Commonly, this is thought to be the case, that our ancestors slaughtered them to the last bird. Yet, this could not be so. Anyone familiar with nature knows that man's greatest impact upon a species is an indirect one. Yes, indirectly man is responsible for the death of the passenger pigeon. He reduced the teeming hordes to small flocks; he cut down the forests that fed them. Yet, why could not the few thousands of remaining birds continue to live in the smaller forests that exist even to this day? "Here the bird's social habits worked against him. When the large flocks were broken up into hundreds or even thousands, the breeding instinct was somehow inhibited and nesting was sporadic or not even attempted."2 Evidently in order to reproduce the birds required the sights and sounds associated with the vast numbers and without these visual and acoustic signals no courtship occurred. Man altered the bird's environment and the altered environment was devoid of the signals necessary for reproduction. It is tragic to contemplate flocks of thousands of these pigeons with all the physiological capabilities necessary to produce thousands more, yet failing to do so for the lack of a signal.


After delving into the lives of animals in nature, we can easily see the vital character of proper communication. Without it, tragic consequences ensue. Is it possible that the principles observed here in animals have equal validity in our lives? Can poor communication in man result in consequences as tragic as those observed in nature? Let us look at an example.

When Mosiah the elder led his people into the land of Zarahemla, he encountered there a group of people we now know as the Mulekites. They were found in a degenerated condition, their language was corrupted, and they had lost contact with their God. Like the Nephites, these people had escaped from Jerusalem at about the same time, but unlike the Nephites they had departed in such a hurry that they failed to take with them a copy of the Holy Scriptures (Omni 1: 17). Why had the Mulekites fallen into such a state of degradation when the Nephites had remained an enlightened and highly civilized people? King Benjamin, Mosiah's son, in his famous address answers this question:

I say unto you, my sons, were it not for these things, which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God, that we might read and understand of his mysteries, and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren. (Mosiah 1: 5)

Benjamin makes it clear that the fundamental cause of the difference between these two peoples is one of communication.

Yes communication is essential; in fact the general health and well-being of any group of people, be it the members of a community, the members of an organization, or the members of a family unit, depends upon sound communication.

Communication problems in man, like his neighbors in nature, fall into two basic categories. First, communication at times when no communication would be a wiser course, and second, failure to communicate when accurate, frank communication is needed. These are common problems seen at all levels of society and I sometimes think that our basic problems are more a matter of misunderstanding than outright disagreement.

Communication in animals exists; it is essential for their well-being; drastic results can accrue from communication failures. Likewise these same principles apply to us, we too are creations of that same master architect. But we are not just another of his many masterpieces, we are his literal children, and as such he expects us to achieve a higher form of communication, one that should ascend far beyond that level seen in nature. It should, for example, incorporate feeling, understanding, and a sense of responsibility for messages sent; it should not be adulterated with triteness, pettiness, nor coarseness. Neither harmony nor happiness will exist in a family whose members cannot achieve this high level of communication. No organization, regardless of its other qualities, will find success without it. Good solid communication is essential for harmony; harmony brings unity; unity is necessary for success. Poor communication breeds disharmony; disharmony results in fragmentation; fragmentation precedes extinction. Nature in vivid color tells us this story. That we may gain an appreciation for nature (for it is the handiwork of God); and that from this appreciation we may be able to extract a lesson; and that

we may apply this lesson in our lives, is my prayer. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


1Ed. Note. Berrett has not been able to locate the precise source he used for this quotation (Delwyn G. Berrett to Jesse S. Crisler, 14 January 1993); however, A. W. Schorger, a specialist on passenger pigeons, compiled a detailed study of this last great nesting of the birds in Wisconsin ("Great").
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2Ed. Note. According to Berrett, the source for this conclusion is now "unknown," though "possibly from. . . Greenway['s]Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World" (Berrett to Crisler, 14 January 1993); while it does not appear in Greenway, various other studies do support this explanation for the demise of the passenger pigeon. Back to Top

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