What Does the Fox Say? and Other Tales of Animal Communication


What does the fox say? (Photo credit: Kevin Law of London, England/Flickr/Getty Images)

In the lyrics of a recent popular song, listeners are asked “What does the fox say?”We’re told that, in contrast to the cows moo and the ducks quack, the fox gives off some kind of Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding! or Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow! noise.

This isn’t quite accurate. Foxes do make noises. They make many noises, in fact, consisting of barks, yips, and yowls comparable to those of dogs, a close relative. Perhaps part of the reason the call of the fox may be a mystery to us (and so well believe anything musicians tell us) is that we simply don’t normally hear it. Also, as children, examples of the fox’s vocal intonations aren’t usually included among the recitations of the cows moo and the ducks quack. And, even if they were, the fox’s real voice probably wouldn’t have been something wed likely want to imitate. Often mistaken for the song of an owl, a sort of ow-wow-wow-wow, even the signals the fox sends out to attract mates can sound like downright torture or certainly nothing anyone wishing for a number one song would want to set to music. So, now you really know what the fox says, but, if you’re looking for something to sing, you should probably stick to what the song tells you.

Apart from clearing up any misinformation given in the lyrics of popular songs, animal communication is an absolutely fascinating area of study. As scientists learn more and more about the sounds animals make, they’ve come to realize that not only do these sounds carry specific meanings, but animals communicate in very sophisticated and surprising ways. Following are just a few examples.

Take, for instance, the splendid fairy-wren. A bird native to Australia, splendid fairy-wrens form social male-female pairs that seemingly last for life. The male, however, has a wandering eye and is constantly on the lookout for outside mates. He also possesses what seems a death wish, as he has the strange habit of singing out right after hearing the call of one of his fiercest predators, the butcherbird, fool-heartedly alerting it to his location. Biologist Emma Grieg and others, however, believe the male has another purpose for doing this: its a show of bravado to any females that might be in the vicinity.

Grieg and others have tested the idea by playing different male fairy-wren songs to females, at times preceded by a butcherbird’s call. What she found was that the females always seemed more receptive to males calls when preceded by the call of the predator. One conclusion is that the females, after hearing the predators call, are simply already in a state of heightened alert and so its a good opportunity for the males to alert them of their whereabouts. Grieg, however, proposes the idea can go a step further. She speculates that the really exciting possibility is that the combined predator/mate songs have a sexual function, and that females are more easily stimulated by, or receptive to, displays after being alerted by a predator, such that the male’s song is especially attractive. In other words, males are singing out to show the females that they are there for them in times of need.

A cousin to the splendid fairy-wren, the superb fairy-wren (clearly whoever named these birds seems to think a lot of them) has an even more sophisticated, and somewhat less deceitful, way of dealing with potential predators. The bronze cuckoo often attempts to place its eggs into the superb fairy-wrens nest, attempting to shirk its own parental obligations and instead get the fairy-wrens to care for their young. When the baby cuckoos hatch — which occurs before the fairy-wrens eggs hatch because they have a shorter incubation time — the chicks toss the other eggs out of the nest. However, according to Sonia Kleindorfer of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, the mother has a defense for this: she password-protects her chicks by teaching them a secret code while incubating.

To test this idea, Kleindorfer recorded the sounds of female fairy-wrens as they were incubating eggs. She found that during this time the mothers sang songs containing up to 11 elements, stopping when the eggs hatched. Among the 11 elements was a note of a particular length and tone that appeared to be unique to that bird. When the eggs hatched, only if the chicks could repeat this note would the mother feed them. Because the cuckoo eggs have a shorter development time, any cuckoo among the brood would not have had enough of a chance to learn the code. Not hearing the code, the mother would have no choice but to abandon the nest.

One recent discovery in the way rats communicate promises to bring more prominence to a sense perhaps overlooked when we think of how we send messages: smell. Daniel Wesson of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, found that when two rats encounter each other, the top rat tends to sniff more frequently as a way of showing dominance. While the importance of sniffing among animals has never been in question, these findings suggest that its more than just a way of gathering information. And they may even be a signal that its important to other animals as well as a way of socializing. As Wesson says, “This sniffing behavior might reflect a common mechanism of communication behavior across many types of animals and in a variety of social contexts. It is highly likely that our pets use similar communication strategies in front of our eyes each day, but because we do not use this ourselves, it isn’t recognizable as ‘communication.'”

More to Explore
Naturally Social: Cool Ways Animals Communicate
7 Bizarre Animal Languages
The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?) – Ylvis (video)

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