Dear Riley,

There’s really nothing cuter than baby animals. Many animal parents invest lots of time into caring for their young and teaching them to survive.

I talked about your question with my friend Amber Adams-Progar. She’s an animal sciences professor at Washington State University. She’s also an expert in dairy cow behavior. She told me that non-human animals learn in ways that are like how humans learn.

“When it comes to learning survival skills, they pick up some skills from their parents, but they also learn from their peers,” she said.

One way animals learn is by watching what others do and mimicking them. Experts call this social learning. Adams-Progar told me that calves in the pasture watch their mothers eating grass. They start doing it, too.

Like all mammals, calves drink milk after they’re born. Their digestive systems aren’t mature until they’re about 12 weeks old. So, they have lots of time to watch other cows eat and practice eating.

A cow and three calves lie in a grassy pasture. Image by Reinhard Thrainer from Pixabay

Calves also learn to stay safe from danger by watching adults and older calves. They watch for changes in the other cattle’s bodies. This is called body language. Lots of animals communicate their emotions by changing how they hold their ears, tails and heads.

Adams-Progar also studied green anole lizards. They communicate through head bobs. Moving their heads up and down sends messages. Sometimes they spread out the bright red skin under their chins to really make a point.

My favorite example of body language is the honey bee waggle dance. Only the oldest bees leave the colony to search for nectar and other resources. Then, they do a dance to tell other bees where to find them.

Adams-Progar told me that many animals use verbal communication, too.

“Technically animals do talk,” she said. “But they just don’t use the same words or language that we use.”

Think about birds. They sing, chirp and call to each other. We may not understand them, but each song, chirp and call is a message.

The range of moos, lows and bellows that cattle use are messages, too. But the calls are also unique—like human voices. That helps mothers and calves find each other. Scientists say that animals that use verbal communication even take turns “talking” like humans do.

Adams-Progar told me that cattle use all kinds of communication. If a predator shows up, they become uneasy and more alert. They may form a circle to protect weaker members of the herd. They might give calls to alert the herd and get the calves’ attention. They gently nudge the calves into the circle. Over time, the calves learn how to respond to danger. They learn how to keep themselves and their herd safe.

It’s not that different from how human kids learn. Just like calves, human babies learn to mimic others. They copy the facial expressions and movements of adults and older kids. They seem to love being mimicked, too. In one study, babies were happier to see people who copied them.

It’s just one more way we’re all in this together in the animal kingdom.


Dr. Universe