What Is Zoosemiotics?

The term zoosemiotics was coined by Thomas A. Sebeok in 1963 and initially proposed as a name “for the discipline, within which the science of signs intersects with ethology, devoted to the scientific study of signaling behavior in and across animal species” (Sebeok 1972:61).

Within the sphere of animal communication Opens in new window, zoosemiotics focuses on messages given off and received by animals. The basic assumption of zoosemiotics is that all animals are social beings, each species with a characteristic set of communication problems to solve (Sebeok 1963: 465)

To give more clarity, the following definitions have been proposed:

Zoosemiotics is the name for the study of animal semiosis, communication and representation. It stems from the semiotic tradition that does not limit sign processes to human species. Such an approach is developed most clearly in the pragmatic semiotics of Charles S. Peirce and Charles Morris.

Zoosemiotics deals with the rules of animal communication by using the theory of information (e.g. mathematic analysis of signals) and the theory of communication. Situated between traditional ethology and sociobiology, it deals with topics of particular interest:

  1. the nature of communicative channels (visual, tactile, electric) in relation with the environment;
  2. the meaning of a message in relation with the context it is emitted;
  3. the ability of social species to construct symbolic languages. The latter shows similarity between zoosemiotics and cognitive ethology (Malacarne, in Mainardi 1992: 817-8).

Zoosemiotics in Humans Communication

Zoosemiotics is not only confined to the study of the sounds and signals used in animal communication, it is also used in human communication to describe certain modes, or the general means by which stimuli are made known to the senses (i.e., acoustic, visual, olfactory).

Human’s use of zoosemiotic communication reflects the fact that as humans we share a common heritage or repertorie of communication behaviors with other animals.

Furthermore, human zoosemiotic communication relies on a language, or a system of organizing stimuli into information, that is exclusively sign based. This sign-based language system is characterized by stimuli that have single, concrete, and fixed meanings regardless of context in which the stimuli are used (Dance, 1982; Jonhson & Dance, 1980).

Human’s use of zoosemiotic communication, like all forms of zoosemiotic communication, serves the biological functions of regulating behavior and socialization. For example, studies of human infant-caregiver interactions have found that infants are capable of coordinating and regulating the interactions they have with adults. Infants have been observed moving in synchrony with adult speech patterns as early as 20 minutes after birth (Condon, 1979).