Newsroom: Total Umwelten, Signalling and Shared Meaning in Animal Social Groups

Amelia Lewis, zoologist, and member of The Royal Society of Biology and the International Society of Biosemiotic Studies, recently published a paper in the journal Biosemiotics, which builds on the concept of the ‘Total Umwelt’ to discuss shared meaning and social signalling in animal social groups.

The word ‘umwelt’, plural ‘umwelten’ is a German word which translated, means ‘environment’, but in ethology and biosemiotics, it has a more specific meaning; ‘Umwelt’ refers to an animal’s own personal ‘world’. Made up of those signs and signals an animal is physically able to sense, and those which it encounters in its habitat niche, the Umwelt of each species, and of each individual, is different. For example, fish live in aquatic environments where light, acoustic, and chemical signals travel differently than in the atmosphere. Thus, the Umwelt of a fish is very different from that of terrestrial organisms. Further, the Umwelt of a marine fish is different from that of a freshwater river fish.

Umwelt theory is the concept of early 19th century biologist and semiotician, Jakob von Uexküll, and is now key in the field of biosemiotics. In his 2003 paper, Professor Morten Tønnessen of The University of Stavanger, Norway, proposed the ‘Total Umwelt’ [1]. Describing the collective Umwelten of all animals in a social group, population, or community, the Total Umwelt provides the basis for the recent paper “Total Umwelten Create Shared Meaning the Emergent Properties of Animal Groups as a Result of Social Signalling”.  In this article, the author discusses the emergent properties that appear when the individual Umwelten in a group of animals, or ‘Total Umwelten’, merge via social signalling [2].

Biosemiotics investigates signs and signals which have meaning to living things, and Umwelten are formed via these sign processes. An animal perceives a sign in the environment or its body, which represents a semiotic ‘object’, such as hearing the acoustic vibrations of birdsong, seeing photons of light from the colours of feather plumage, or feeling hungry in response to low blood sugar levels. When a sign is interpreted, it has meaning [3]; for example, it might represent danger, food/hunger, shelter, or a suitable mate. An animal can then transmit the information as a signal, and one good example of this is a mobbing call. Many bird species make specialized calls when they detect an approaching predator, the purpose being to alert others in the social group to the risk and to deter the predator as part of a coordinated counter-attack. Indeed, some mobbing calls (e.g., those of the Siberian jay, Perisoreus infaustus) have even been found to identify the specific type of predator [4]. Almost all animals produce social signals; for example, ants achieve significant feats when working together by using olfactory signs or ‘pheromone trails’. In doing so, colonies forage collectively and build large, structurally complex nests many thousands of times the size an individual alone could manage [5]. In fact, many non-group living species also show aggregative behaviour for protection and warmth, such as these peacock butterfly caterpillars on a nettle plant.

An aggregation of peacock butterfly caterpillars allows for protection from predation and the elements.

Moreover, social signalling is not limited to deliberate communication; facial expressions, body language, odours, and vocalizations all signal to other animals about an individual’s emotional and physiological state. This gives rise to empathy, resulting in positive social interactions [6], like the ones between the two horses in the first photograph, and the ‘allogrooming’ behaviour of the socially bonded rabbits in the second.

Social behaviour in horses. These mares are part of the same social group and communicate via a mixture of signals including olfactory, vocal and tactile.
Allogrooming’, or ‘mutual grooming’ in socially bonded domestic rabbits.

However, these incredible signalling abilities are not limited to within-species signalling. Mixed groups occur, where different species come together to form a flock, herd, hybrid swarm, or shoal. Perhaps one of the most remarkable examples is the domestication of companion animals, where we as humans have managed to successfully integrate a top predator, the wolf (Canis lupus), into our homes and family groups, in the form of the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris.

Domestic dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years, and social signals such as human pointing gestures, and vocalizations in both species, take on a shared meaning.

The author concludes that given the extensive reliance on social signalling in the animal kingdom, the ‘Total Umwelt’ is not only a number of individual ‘worlds’ occurring together in space and time. It is the collective shared meaning of many thousands of patterned signs and signals. When Umwelten merge, the signals give rise to emergent group properties, analogous to the functioning of a neural network made up of thousands of neurons. This exciting new development in biosemiotics and ethology provides a framework in which to study animal social group behaviour and communication, and potentially to discover novel ethological phenomena.

For more information:

Lewis, A. (2020). Total Umwelten Create Shared Meaning the Emergent Properties of Animal Groups as a Result of Social Signalling. Biosemiotics, 1-11.


[1] Tønnessen, M. (2003). Umwelt ethics. Sign Systems Studies, 31(1), 281-299.

[2] Lewis, A. (2020). Total Umwelten Create Shared Meaning the Emergent Properties of Animal Groups as a Result of Social Signalling. Biosemiotics, 1-11.

[3] Barbieri, M. (2008). What is biosemioticsBiosemiotics, 1 (1-3).

[4] Griesser, M., (2009). Mobbing calls signal predator category in a kin group-living bird species. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276 (1669), 2887-2892.

[5] Jackson, D.E., & Ratnieks, F.L., (2006). Communication in ants. Current biology, 16(15), R570-R574.  

[6] De Waal, F.B. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 279-300.

[All images provided by Amelia Lewis; Edited by Lindsey Broadus]

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