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Animal communication

A discipline within the field of animal behavior that focuses upon the reception and use of signals. Animal communication could well include all of animal behavior, since a liberal definition of the term signal could include all stimuli perceived by an animal. However, most research in animal communication deals only with those cases in which a signal, defined as a structured stimulus generated by one member of a species, is subsequently used by and influences the behavior of another member of the same species in a predictable way (intraspecific communication). In this context, communication occurs in virtually all animal species.

The field of animal communication includes an analysis of the physical characteristics of those signals believed to be responsible in any given case of information transfer. A large part of this interest is due to technological improvements in signal detection, coupled with analysis of the signals obtained with such devices.

Information transmission between two individuals can pass in four channels:  acoustic, visual, chemical, and electrical. An individual animal may require information from two or more channels simultaneously before responding appropriately to reception of a signal. Furthermore, a stimulus may evoke a response under one circumstance but be ignored in a different context.

Acoustic signals have characteristics that make them particularly suitable for communication, and virtually all animal groups have some forms which communicate by means of sound. Sound can travel relatively long distances in air or water, and obstacles between the source and the recipient interfere little with an animal's  ability to locate the source. Sounds are essentially instantaneous and can be altered in important ways. Both amplitude and frequency modulation can be found in sounds emitted by animals; in some species sound signals have discrete patterns due to frequency and timing of utterances. Since a wide variety of sound signals are possible, each species can have a unique set of signals in its repertoire.

Sound signals are produced and received primarily during sexual attraction, including mating and competition. They may also be important in adult–young interactions, in the coordination of movements of a group, in alarm and distress calls, and in intraspecific signaling during foraging behavior.

Visual signaling between animals can be an obvious component of communication. Besides the normal range of human vision (visible light), visual signals include additional frequencies in the infrared and ultraviolet ranges. The quality of light that is often considered is color, but other characteristics are important in visual communication. Alterations of brightness, pattern, and timing also provide versatility in signal composition. The visual channel suffers from the important limitation that all visual signals must be line of sight. Information transfer is therefore largely restricted to the daytime (except for animals such as fireflies) and to rather close-range situations.

Intraspecific visual signaling appears to occur primarily during mate attraction. The color dimorphism of birds, the patterns of butterfly wings, the posturing of some fish, and firefly flashing are examples. Some parent--young interactions involve visual signaling. A young bird in the nest may open its mouth when it sees the underside of its parent's  beak. Other examples are the synchronized behavior observed in schooling fish and flocking birds.

Chemical signals, like visual and sound signals, can travel long distances, but with an important distinction. Distant transmission of chemical signals requires a movement of air or water. Therefore, an animal cannot perceive an odor from a distance; it can only perceive molecules brought to it by a current of air or water. Animals do not hunt for an odor source by moving other than upwind or upcurrent in water because chemical signals do not travel in still air or water since diffusion is far too slow.

The fact that chemical signals comprise molecules means that, unlike acoustical or visual signals, chemical signals have a time lag. Chemical signals have to be of an appropriate concentration if they are to be effective. A chemical normally considered to be an attractant can serve as a repellent if it is too strong. Chemical signals may persist for a while, and time must pass before the concentration drops below the threshold level for reception by a searching animal. Since molecules of different sizes and shapes have varying degrees of persistence in the environment, the chemical channel is often involved in territorial marking, odor trail formation, and mate attraction. This channel is particularly suitable where acoustical or visual signals might betray the location of a signaler to a potential predator.

The array of molecular structure is essentially limitless, permitting a species-specific nature for chemical signals. Unfortunately, that specificity can make interception and analysis of chemical signals a difficult matter for research.

Pheromones are chemical signals that are produced by an animal and are exuded to influence the behavior of other members of the same species. If pheromones are incorporated into a recipient's  body (by ingestion or absorption), they may chemically alter the behavior of such an individual for a considerable period of time.Chemical ecology

Some electric fish and electric eels live in murky water and have electric generating organs that are really modified muscle bundles. Communication by electric signaling is rapid; signals can travel throughout the medium (even murky water), and rather complex signals can be generated, permitting species-specific communication during sexual attraction. However, the electrical mode is apparently restricted to those species that have electric generating organs.

Animal communication is one of the most difficult areas of study in science for several reasons. First, experiments must be designed and executed in such a manner that extraneous cues (artifacts) are eliminated as potential causes of the observed results. Second, once supportive evidence has been obtained, each hypothesis must be tested. In animal communication studies, adequate tests often rely upon direct evidence—that is, evidence obtained by artificially generating the signal presumed responsible for a given behavioral act, providing that signal to a receptive animal, and actually evoking a specific behavioral act in a predictable manner. Ethology

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From McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. The Content is a copyrighted work of McGraw-Hill and McGraw-Hill reserves all rights in and to the Content. The Work is © 2008 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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