Animal Communication

What You Need

Animal Communication Photo credit: Clipart.com


To understand that all species have some capacity for communication.


The focus of this lesson is threefold. First, to expose students to the fact that all species have a capacity for communication. Second, to enlighten students to the fact that communication abilities range from very simple to extremely complex, depending upon the species. Third, to realize that communication is influenced by a species' genetic makeup, its environment, and the numerous ways by which animals and humans respond to and adapt to their surroundings.

At the end of elementary school, students should know that learning means using what one already knows to make sense out of new experiences or information, not just storing new information in one's head. In addition, they should understand that unlike human beings, behavior in insects and other species is determined almost entirely by biological inheritance.

This prerequisite knowledge should help middle-school students understand that some animal species are limited to a repertoire of genetically determined behaviors whereas others have more complex brains that enable them to learn a wide variety of behaviors. Further, students should realize that specialized roles within species are genetically programmed, whereas human beings are able to invent and modify a wider range of social behavior.

The study of animal communication requires a broader set of perspectives than nearly any other topic in biology because it involves both simple (at the cellular level) and complex (at the neural level) concepts. For example, the importance of basic communication within an organism is seen at the cellular level by means of simple chemical reactions. Conversely, the importance of communication between organisms is seen at the neural level by means of complex speech patterns. Important disciplines surrounding the topic of animal communication include biophysics, chemistry, physiology, pharmacology, neurobiology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and behavioral ecology.


In this section, students will do two activities that will spark their thinking about animal and human communication. These activities may take an entire class period depending upon the time limitations you set forth.

Write the following sentence on the board and ask students to think about what it means as they do the two activities:

Although all species have some capacity for communication, there is a range of abilities among species.

Using the Animal Communication student esheet, students will go to the Orangutan U Science Update, read the transcript, and then read the research. They should answer the questions about this Science Update on the Animal Communication student sheet. Then, as a class, discuss the questions found in the Science Update:

  • What is Rob Shumaker having the orangutans do?
  • What must be in the orangutan's response, in order for it to be correct?
  • What will Shumaker focus on first as he and the orangutans start working on math? Do you remember the first mathematical thing you learned?
  • Why would it be important to have an understanding of the similarities orangutans have to humans when it comes to learning or communicating?
  • What are some other ways humans might communicate with primates?

Next, students will play a game that will demonstrate some key elements of good communication. Instructions for the Communication Puzzle game can be found on the Communication Puzzle teacher sheet. Share the instructions with students and make sure that each group is clear on what they are supposed to do. If you like, you can make a copy of the instructions for students, but make sure not to include the puzzle solution in any handouts that you give to the students who are supposed to solve the puzzle.

Once students have finished this game, ask them these questions. They will motivate student thinking about the importance of communication regarding humans and other species. Note: there are no right or wrong answers to these questions.

  • Why was communication not optimal (or ideal) in this exercise?
  • What are the different ways humans communicate?
  • Were all ways of human communication being used during this exercise?
  • What were some of the key elements for better communication?


Part I: All Animals Communicate
Tell students that specialized roles within species are genetically programmed. And, that depending on the neural abilities of an animal, it may be able to do only simple or very complex tasks. For example, human beings have superior neural abilities compared to other animals and are therefore able to invent and modify a wider range of social behavior, including their own communication abilities.

Using the Animal Communication student esheet, students should read All Animals Communicate. As they are reading, they should look for answers to these questions (they can record their answers on the Animal Communication student sheet):

  • Are humans constantly communicating? How about other animals?
  • Are there any special areas in human brains that make us distinct from other animals?
  • Which animals have communication abilities that are closer to humans?
  • Do scientists believe that chimps have a language like humans?
  • What are some examples of ways that humans can communicate that are different from other animals?

Part II: Factors Affecting Animal Communication
In this part of the lesson, students will examine animal communication in terms of how species' behaviors are affected by inheritance, environment, and experience.

Using the esheet, students will read these articles:

Then the esheet will direct them to answer these questions on their student sheet:

  • Is the ability to communicate the exclusive possession of human beings?
  • List some of the ways that animals express themselves.
  • Who do you think will have greater communication abilities: a dog that lives in a regular home or a dog that lives in a circus, why?


Refer students to the "Understanding What You Learned" section of the esheet. Here they will be asked to reconsider the sentence that you shared with them at the beginning of the lesson: Although all species have some capacity for communication, there is a range of abilities among species. Students should reflect on what it means in terms of what they have learned.

Student answers should generally reflect an understanding of these three concepts:

  • Communication is a common link between all known species.
  • The ability of communication varies from simple to complex among different species, finding its climax in humans, since humans are able to invent and modify a wider range of social behavior, including communication.
  • Communication styles are influenced by an animal's genetic makeup, environment, and adaptation abilities.


The Science NetLinks lesson, Pets: Oh Behave, explores some of the same ideas covered in this lesson.

Students may find it fun and interesting to search through these websites to get further information regarding animal communication. These resources can be accessed from the "Going Further" section of the E-Sheet.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards