A Review of the Body Language of Wild Animals

Jenna Samsel

Photo credit: Shivam Kumar on Unsplash

If you have companion animals, you know how important it is to understand and interpret their body language or other communication cues.  Similarly, it is important to comprehend the body language of wild animals.  Throughout everyday routines, crossing paths with at least a small variety of undomesticated animals is likely, but especially during travel, encountering unfamiliar wild animals is even more possible. While stumbling upon wildlife in any scenario is often an exciting and awe-inspiring experience, the ability to understand the animals’ body language is critical to reducing stress on the animals. For example, understanding when an animal is anxious can help to minimize negative encounters by promoting a safe interaction between humans and the animals. Below are a few examples of body language cues from a variety of animals; these scenarios will hopefully not only provide helpful information for future potential encounters with these animals, but also encourage readers to learn more about the animals living in areas they visit.  


Bears are interesting animals to happen upon in the wild. Not many animals are regarded as being adorable while simultaneously instilling feelings of apprehension and uneasiness.  Certainly, because of their size and power, encountering a bear could be intimidating. In addition to following any local stated guidelines and regulations concerning wildlife, understanding bear behavior can help to ease tensions on both the bear and human. The body language of different bear species should be considered more carefully, because similar behaviors could indicate slightly different signals among bear species. In general, a bear may advance towards a threat to display authority. Further, a bear springing forward and striking the immediate area could be a critical indication for visitors to leave immediately. Other, less threatening cues that signify a bear’s disinterest include getting lower to the ground and ignoring those around. It is important to consider the species of bears in a particular area to fully understand their body language. For example, grizzly bears are extremely protective and can resort to violence if they feel provoked.  


There is no doubt that elephants are impressive creatures. Their sheer size can potentially establish fear. A quick review of their body language, though, indicates that elephants are quite peaceful animals and often attempt to avoid aggressive interactions. While you may be less likely to encounter elephants during your average day, they have interesting body language cues that seemingly relate to a favorite domesticated animal, the dog. A swinging tail indicates joy, and a still tail signifies uneasiness. An elephant’s feelings of nervousness can be followed by entirely leaving the situation. To appear threatening, an elephant may spread their ears out.  While the act may look a little frightening, an elephant waving its ears certainly does not indicate aggression. Rather, the elephant is merely attempting to cool down by creating a breeze.  


Sharks are often misinterpreted as aggressive creatures and are feared by swimmers in the ocean, however in actuality, sharks are typically curious and, unlike popular movies, do not seek out humans. Their curiosity is often interpreted incorrectly, and, as a species with few methods for physical interaction, they use their mouth to explore the world around them. A shark will swim towards and collide with an object of curiosity. The shark will then respond to the physical cues presented by the object and the shark’s body language will become more reactive than proactive at this point. If the object of curiosity displays threatening behavior, the shark may abandon its interest. If the shark is feeling inquisitive, it may approach with an open mouth and shut eyes, indicating it is coming back for an investigative bite. 


Moose can also be quite intimidating, given their size and stature. Similar to elephants, moose can display similar body language cues as dogs.  As some moose become agitated, their hair will stand up, and their ears will flatten. These are signs that a moose might begin to kick. Moose can initially become agitated if they feel their offspring are threatened. In other instances, a hungry moose can be an angry moose. Like bears, rules and regulations for protected areas should be followed when experiencing an encounter with a moose.  

Like humans, nonverbal communication signals such as body language, are powerful indicators of an animal’s current disposition. As previously mentioned, it is best to have an understanding of any regulations and laws protecting animals in an area, especially when you are uncertain about the behaviors and body language of animals in a particular region. While these rules and laws are a great resource, doing further research on animal body language cues is an effective way to ensure you are respecting the space, comfort, and well-being of wildlife you may encounter.  

Sources: Animals, detoxorcist, Field & Stream, Get Bear Smart Society, Londolozi, Study.com