Linguistics Animal Communication
Mark Krause
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0149


Animal communication is a thriving area of study, with contributions from the fields of biology, ecology, animal behavior, animal cognition, ethology, and comparative psychology. The importance of animal communication to the behavioral sciences is evident from its application to each of the four major approaches outlined in Niko Tinbergen’s classic 1963 article “On Aims and Methods of Ethology.” Researchers examine the developmental basis of animal communication, exemplified by research in bird song learning. The causation and physiological approach is represented in the huge literature spanning the behavioral, neural, endocrine, and physical bases of animal communication. The rich comparative and phylogenetic literature reveals evolutionary continuity and specialization of communication systems. Lastly, relationships between communication and reproductive fitness have been studied extensively, and indeed these alone form the foundation of major disciplines, such as behavioral ecology. One challenge to bringing this literature together is separating legitimate scientific study of animal communication from pseudoscience. There is a vast collection of popular books written by nonscholars claiming special and unique insight into animal communication, particularly with regard to what these signals mean in terms of subjective and purported spiritual animal-human connections. Obviously, such sources are not appropriate for this bibliography. Also, some scholars have written popular accounts of their work on animal communication, and these are included sparingly here. This bibliography is divided into sections covering authored and edited volumes on animal communication, and journals that are rich in content about animal communication, including special issues. Following this are sections organized by species diversity of communication modalities, vocal plasticity, animal language studies, neuroscience, and the evolutionary and functional significance of animal communication.


Numerous books addressing empirical, theoretical, and philosophical issues in animal communication are available. Included here are some that fall in the classics category (e.g., Sebeok, et al. 1969; Smith 1980), and others that reflect modern perspectives, such as Owings and Morton 2006. Theoretical and empirical views on the evolution of animal signals, and the nature of the information they convey, are addressed from differing perspectives in Zahavi and Zahavi 1997, Maynard-Smith and Harper 2003, and Searcy and Nowicki 2005. Relatively few textbooks on animal communication are available, though many of the general books on the topic listed here would certainly be suitable for assigning in undergraduate- or graduate-level college courses. Bradbury and Vehrencamp 2011, an outstanding textbook, remains a clear leader of this category.

  • Bradbury, Jack W., and Sandra L. Vehrencamp. 2011. Principles of animal communication. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

    This is a canonical source and essential for scholars interested in animal communication. The major issues in the field are outlined, and communication across all sensory modalities is discussed in detail. The authors select splendid examples (with color photos) of animal communication and provide substantive details on methods of studying communication and results from key studies.

  • Maynard-Smith, John, and David Harper. 2003. Animal signals. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book analyzes fundamental terms and concepts in the study of animal communication. Particular attention is paid to defining key terms such as signal (versus cue), and in exploring the question of whether animal signals convey honest or dishonest information.

  • Owings, Donald H., and Eugene S. Morton. 2006. Animal vocal communication: A new approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The “new approach” claimed in the title views animals that send communicative signals as managers, with the goal of altering the behavior of the recipient(s) in ways benefitting the manager. The receivers are assessors, and their responses to the signal may be beneficial, neutral, or detrimental to the manager. The manager-assessor dynamic is thought to underlie the functional and evolutionary bases of animal communication.

  • Searcy, William A., and Stephen Nowicki. 2005. Evolution of animal communication systems: Reliability and deception in signaling systems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    This book takes up the question of honest versus deceptive signaling in animal communication. Sections of this book are organized according to the interests of the signaler (whether they overlap, diverge, or are in opposition).

  • Sebeok, Thomas A., Julia Kristeva, and Josette Rey-Debove, eds. 1969. Approaches to animal communication. Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton.

    A classic in the field of animal communication. This edited volume is a part of the Approaches to Semiotics book series. The book applies the semiotic approach championed by Sebeok to animal communication. Contributors include such luminaries as Gregory Bateson and Clarence Ray Carpenter.

  • Smith, W. John. 1980. The behavior of communicating: An ethological approach. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    An ethologically oriented book focusing on natural communication systems and their evolution. This book explores the meaning and evolutionary significances of communicative displays in a diversity of organisms.

  • Zahavi, Amotz, and Avishag Zahavi. 1997. The handicap principle. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A nontechnical synthesis of the handicap principle and animal communication. The Zahavis tackle the complicated question of why animals signal in conspicuous ways that are energetically costly and increase predation risk. The book describes different dynamics of communication, including predator-prey, rival communication, and mate selection. The handicap principle is richly applied to the evolution of numerous communication systems.

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