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Unit Two - Animal Cognition and Communication
Lesson Overview

The last 50-60 years have produced what amounts to a revolution in research and understanding of Animal Intelligence and cognition.  Across many species, animals have been shown to make tools, have complex language use, have a sense of time, have emotional memory, and experience a variety of emotional states that look very similar to ours on brain scans, as demonstrated by neuroscientist Gregory Berns.  Animals have been shown to have pro-social behaviors such as empathy (discussed below). 


Some species have been shown to have a “theory of mind,” and recognize themselves in mirror tests.  David Woodruff explains that Theory of Mind is the ability to attribute mental states, e.g., intents, desires, pretending to oneself and others, and to understand that others have desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own.


Cosmo, a parrot with a large vocabulary, and raised in a human environment where her needs were often respected, can be overheard speaking to herself, and commenting “bad bird” when she was doing something she knew was wrong.  This did not keep her from doing the naughty behavior that did not please her human, and it was clear that she knew the difference between “good and bad” behavior, and would sometimes choose to do what pleased her anyway.








The Horse - Clever Hans

And we’ve also come a long way in research methods in the last century since Clever Hans.  The Clever Hans problem taught researchers that they need to be very methodical and precise in developing research protocols.  Clever Hans, a German horse was a world-wide phenomenon in the early 1900’s.  It seemed he could perform complex mathematical computations, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing by stomping out the correct number with his hoof.  He was tested by many, who believed his mathematical abilities were genuine.  As Alison and Jeffrey Stevens report in their article on Animal Cognition, Hans was a very clever horse, but not in the way people assumed.


“Oskar Pfungst made careful observations of Hans's behavior, and discovered that although Hans could correctly answer questions from a variety of people, he could do so only if the questioner were visible.  Pfungst discovered that when people asked Hans a question, they slightly (unconsciously) moved their heads when the correct answer was presented. Hans was indeed clever: he was attuned to the subtle subconscious body language of the people around him (Pfungst 1911).”


The real lesson of Clever Hans is not just exposing a trick, but taking into account the precision of the horse’s ability to read even the slightest unconscious body movement among strangers who posed the questions.  Accurately reading non-verbal communication (body language) is a form of intelligence that humans could use more often!

In this unit on Animal Cognition and Communication, we explore some of the recent scientific evidence for animal cognition, intelligence, and communication.  For example, we will look at several species, beginning with chimp research (Washoe and Nim), and Koko the Gorilla, who has been taught American Sign Language and has the vocabulary of a three-year-old human child.  And crows who can reason at the level of a seven-year-old human child.  We will look at tool use in elephants, dolphins, birds, octopi, and other species. 














This lesson explores communication within a species, across species – and between humans and animals.  While some of you may find the idea of inter-species communication on the outer edges of the frontiers of science, we present the more credible examples and invite you to have an open mind.  After all, it was only a hundred years ago that it was believed that animals didn’t feel emotional or physical pain -- now we have myriad examples such as elephants mourning the loss of a member of their herd and many other examples of different species of animals grieving from loss.










Evidence for Animal Empathy and Implications:

There was a time when empathy, the ability to correctly interpret another’s emotions, and adjust one’s own behavior in a positive or soothing manner toward another, was considered a trait only humans had.  This prosocial behavior that has no apparent survival imperative, has been observed in many species.  For example, capuchin monkeys will release a captive monkey in a lab before taking a treat or will refuse a treat if another is denied.  Frans De Waal has shown a very strong principle of fairness in our closest relatives, (see his Ted Talk).

Rats have been shown to reject a chocolate bar, once they learn that doing so will cause another rat to be drowned.  Researchers at Gwansei Gakuin University in Japan put the rodents to the ultimate test, pitting chocolate against altruism.  In their experiment, rats on the dry platform had to choose between two doors, one that allowed their soaked companion to escape from the pool and another that provided access to a tasty chocolate treat.  The rodents chose to help their companions before seeking the snack 50% to 80% of the time, showing that the urge to help a fellow rat was at least as strong as the desire for food, the authors say.


This study supports a growing body of evidence that there’s an evolutionary basis for helpful behavior in both humans and animals, independent of culture or upbringing. 


Neurobiologist Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago says. “Humans are not helping purely because mom taught us to help,” she says. “In part—and to what degree remains to be seen—we help because it’s in our biology.”















This same caring activity has been seen in other species.  For example, a pride of lions rescued a young girl in trouble, this story is excerpted here:


“In 2005, a 12-year-old girl near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was dragged out into the wild and beaten bloody by seven men. Apparently, this was supposed to convince her to marry one of them—which seems like a weird method but is shockingly common there.  According to the United Nations, 70 percent of marriages in that area starts with a young girl being abducted, dragged out into the middle of nowhere, raped, and then forced to marry someone.


All that would have happened to this girl, too, if it wasn’t for a group of lions. When the girl started crying, a nearby pride of lions heard her and rushed to her rescue.  The lions pounced on the men and chased them away, saving her before she could be raped and forced into a life of servitude.


That’s not all, though.  If they’d just attacked the men, it could easily have just been a random lion attack.  But the lions stayed with the girl. They waited with the bruised child for about 12 hours—protecting her in case the men came back—until her family found her.  And when they did, the lions walked back into the jungle, leaving her safe.”  (













































Elephants can communicate with each other across hundreds of square miles through the use of infrasonic ultra-low frequency sounds that are inaudible to the human ear.  They appear to be able to communicate complex information such as emotional states, keeping in touch with each other across great distances, and passing on information according to The Elephant Listening Project, which has been collecting data for over two decades.  The amount of information has caused Cornell researchers to consider creating the First Elephant Dictionary.  But, as we explore in this unit, this research is just the tip of the iceberg of understanding of how elephants “seem to know” so much more than what we have previously considered possible.
















Animal Communication – Human-to-Animal:

We will look at language with parrots such as Alex, and the work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg, that go beyond what we would expect with his 300-word language acquisition.  And finally, we will explore credible examples of those humans who claim to have the ability to communicate and interact with animals using intuition and telepathy. 

Animal Communication – Two-Way Communication:

And we will also explore two-way communication where a human uses non-linear and apparently telepathic methods that honor the animal’s natural communication preferences.

These anecdotal stories from experts in Animal Communication will require more research and verification to qualify as science.  But they point us in the direction of how little we currently know and the need for greater understanding.  They show us the possibilities on the frontiers of science and the potential collaboration between human and non-human animals. 


We’ve come a long way since Ivan Pavlov, who believed the dogs in his laboratory were just salivating in response to a bell that indicated food was coming, and not capable of more complex mental processes. 

Nature Communicates:

It is clear that Nature communicates.  Humans, animals, plants, and all of nature – the question is can we begin to understand how this communication occurs.  For example, an Acacia tree under “attack” from giraffes and antelopes or other animals who stop to chomp their leaves, will emit a bitter tannin to the leaves to discourage the animals.  But according to zoologist Wouter Van Hoven from Pretoria, these trees also communicate.  They warn their neighboring trees, by emitting a chemical, ethylene, into the air which can travel up to 50 yards. The ethylene warns other trees of the impending danger, which then step up their own production of toxic leaf tannin within just five to ten minutes. 

Anjana, a chimpanzee in an animal sanctuary, nursed two orphaned Siberian tiger cubs. 

Without training, she bottle fed and filled the role of a surrogate mother. 

Animal-to-Animal Communication


This lesson takes a look into animal-to-animal communication with examples from several species; primates, dolphins, octopi, elephants, ravens, parrots and dogs.  For example, Dr. Klaus Zuberbuhler was studying the alarm calls of Diana Monkeys in the Tai Forest of West Africa.  He was able to distinguish specific warning calls when a predator was approaching.  He found a slight variation in the warning for an eagle, which meant the monkeys needed to quickly race down the trees, and the one for a leopard, which meant the monkeys needed to streak up the trees.  Then he discovered that other species of monkeys correctly recognized these slightly nuanced vocalizations.  Then he discovered that the birds understood them also. 


And, remarkably, one day when he was late returning to camp, he was the one who was being pursued by a silent leopard – and the monkeys issued the warning calls.  He recognized that the warning was “leopard approaching” and was able to take protective action and get back to safety.

Diana monkeys have specific warning calls to alert each other of the specific type of predator.

Also in Unit Three, we will explore human-to-animal dialogue in which humans have created a bridge to communication, such as teaching Koko the gorilla how to use sign language.   Koko, who has the vocablulary of a three-year-old human child, creates sentences and will even sign to herself when she is alone.

Alex with Dr. Irene Pepperberg.

Anthony learned to communicate with his herd.

Samantha Khury had a conversation with elephants at a zoo where they explained how their feet were hurting because of the zoo environment.  She was able to communicate this to zoo staff and it changed how the elephants were treated on a daily basis in the zoo.  They treated their feet every day after this.

Robin Williams and Koko share a tickle.

"Cosmo is a bad birdie."

She would say when she was misbehaving.

Clever Hans wowed audiences with his appearant math skills.

Nim learning through imitation, in one of the earlier studies in communication with chimps.

TED Talk with Frans de Waal on the Sense of Fairness in Animals.

We are just beginning to understand how elephants

communicate with each other.

Now with the functional MRI brain scans done on conscious dogs, "We are gaining more insight into the interior life of animals." Neuroscientist, Gregory Berns..

Pavlov book.jpg
Pavlov cartoon.jpg


grieve and

mourn their


Communicating with Koko with sign language.

In addition to animals sending and receiving messages among each other, we will explore various examples of inter-species communication in which humans have created pathways to communicate, such as how Koko uses her sign language to indicate to humans her desires and emotions.  She has given us much insight into her heart, mind and long term memory.

koko hug penny.jpg

Conservationist Lawrence Anthony developed a reputation as the elephant whisperer because of his ability to calm down African elephants who were unhappy about being relocated to a reserve for their protection.  He was able to “communicate to them that they would be killed if they left the protected area.” (To learn how he communicated with them, read his book The Elephant Whisperer:  My Life with the Herd in the African Wild.



Years later, Anthony died of a heart attack.  He had not been in the reserve or seen the elephants for many years but somehow the elephants sensed that Anthony had passed.  They left the reserve and traveled for 12 hours to his home to pay their respects.  Just as an elephant will mourn the dead of its own species, they came out for Anthony.

Two full herds of elephants came in a procession to his home.  This massive group of gigantic elephants waited on Anthony’s property for two days to mourn his death before they headed back home.

This example, from a noted “Animal Communicator” with excellent corroborated case studies, Samantha Khury, who talks about visiting with a 70-year-old Asian elephant in the San Diego Zoo.  Kkury believes she is able to have two-way-telepathic conversations with all animals.  After chatting briefly with the elephants, she thought the conversation was over and turned to leave.  The elephant tried to kick her, and the keepers intervened.  When Samantha turned back, she “heard” the elephant’s telepathic communication, “I wasn’t finished speaking.  That was very rude of you to leave.” 


When Samantha asked what else the elephant wanted to say, the elephant said she was in pain, lifted her foot and showed where it was hurting.  Samantha gave the elephant some foot massage and removed the irritating material that was lodged in the foot pads.  When Samantha was finished, the elephant bowed to her fully, a behavior the zookeepers had never seen her do.

Communicating with Elephants

See the documentary "Project Nim."

Clever Hans.jpg

The real "magic" of Clever Hans

All About Ants:


Ants have perfected communication for 150 million years.  Without a hierarchy, they manage to communicate the different tasks, where danger is, where food is.  Without sight, they use scent to send each other essential information for surival

Whales are an acoustic herd who communicate using sound across 100,000 square miles.

The study of the Human-Animal Bond poses questions such as:



What do the animals want to tell us? 

What do they want us to know? 

How can we serve them better? 


And, they give us inspiration about crossing the communication barrier between species.  For those who wish to study this skill, we provide information about the teachers and learning resources we have found to be the most promising.



"I don't know if people will ever be able to talk to animals the way Doctor Doolittle could, or whether animals will be able to talk back.  Maybe science will have something to say about that.  But I do know people can learn to "Talk" to animals and to hear what animals have to say, better than they do now."

          Dr. Temple Grandin  -

Animals in Translation

Prairie Dogs have a sophisticated language of calls which they use to communicate with each other.

If you are enrolled in this class here are your 


1. Read this Unit Overview

2. Read Two (or more) Unit Blog Posts

3. Answer the JOURNAL Questions Assignment

4. Take the Quiz (if you are doing for credit)

5. Then Proceed to the next unit:


Thank you for visiting our

Human-Animal Connection Website

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