The Web of Life (126-12) Communication


All animals are anatomically constrained in the number of discrete call types they can produce. By combining calls into meaningful sequences, animals can increase the information content of their vocal repertoire despite these constraints. Additionally, signalers can use vocal signatures or cues correlated to other individual traits or contexts to increase the information encoded in their vocalizations. ~ Swiss zoologist David Jansen

Communication necessarily involves abstraction. Every syllable, however signaled, is a metaphor for a concept.

Complex animal vocalizations comprise syllables which are arranged into patterns that present a message. Even the same single syllable can do so via variation in presentation.

 Banded Mongooses

The adults of many mongoose species live largely solitary lives. By contrast, the banded mongoose is colonial and gregarious.

Banded mongooses cohabit in mixed-sex groups of 7–40 individuals (averaging ~20). Besides foraging as a unit, they sleep together at night in underground dens, which are often abandoned termite mounds.

A group changes its den every few days. If no refuge is available, they lie on each other in a compact layered arrangement, with heads facing outwards and upwards to make the most of sentry while snoozing.

There is no strict hierarchy within a banded mongoose group, but attempted infanticide will ensue if a subordinate female gives birth, but older, dominant females in a colony do not. Banded mongooses evolved the ability for females to synchronize birth, so that a colony litter is not subject to such self-destruction. A communal litter peaceably lives if there is a chance that one of the offspring belongs to a dominant female.

Otherwise, banded mongooses are seldom aggressive within a colony. Squabbles about food occasionally arise, but the first to put dibs on it gets it.

Conversely, an encounter between groups becomes a brawl, sometimes with injuries, and even deaths. Banded mongooses war over food, territory, and sexually receptive females.

20 or 30 mongooses on each side arrange in battle lines. They all rush forward and fighting breaks out. These fights are very chaotic. ~ English zoologist Faye Thompson

Despite the ferocity, females in heat will often mate with males from a rival group during a dustup. Banded mongooses rarely leave their natal group, so group members are closely related. Battles between groups are an opportunity for outbreeding.

Biological parents do little parenting. Younglings are cared for by sundry colony members.

Pups often pick out an adult to be their mentor through infancy. It may be a sibling, cousin, or uncle. The pair spend most of their time together, with the mentor looking after the youngling until it can fend for itself, albeit provoked with frequent begging by the little one.

Banded mongooses have culture: passing on traditions, notably the best foraging spots and other tips, such as how to access the meat in prey with hard shells. To learn, a pup imitates its mentor.

Besides territorial scent markings, which also serve as status updates, banded mongooses make monosyllabic calls that last 50–150 milliseconds. Despite their brevity, these calls identify the animal calling and what it is doing.


Frogs and bats structure single syllables in meaningful communiqués. There are likely many other such species that have simple but content-rich messages. It’s just that we have not paid much attention to the communication skills of other animals.