Threat, Fear, and Intention movements

Angry or aggressive-looking postures, noises and facial expressions are widespread among different animal species. Displays often serve as a substitute for actual fighting. One of the most common threat displays is the stare. "Animals as diverse as crabs, lizards, and birds all perceive staring as a threat." (Kalin, 1993)

What is the function of threat displays? What are common examples? How did Dian Fossey use a facial expression to intimidate a large gorilla?

When a larger or more dominant animal makes a threat display, a younger or more submissive animal usually backs down, and violence is averted. A low growl accompanied by a stare is an unmistakable threat display used by many large mammals. A common threat display for the dog is a low growl, with ears laid back and teeth bared. Cats have a threat display also: they stare, make a low growling sound, and adopt a posture that indicates they may attack. If seriously threatened, they hiss, arch their backs, and fluff their fur in the classic "cat fight" posture. Such a display might be considered a fear display as much as a threat display. Fear and threat displays are often similar.

The primate grimace known as the threat face tells an aggressor to "back off." Dr. Dian Fossey, whose life was portrayed in the movie Gorillas in the Mist, used her knowledge of social displays among gorillas.

In response to a silverback that would not stop bluff-charging her, she made a fright face, [a] kind of horrible grimace... The startled silverback sat down at once and began to eat, nervously, with one eye on her. Then he got up and walked away. (Hayes, 1990)

How are intention movements used in threat displays?

Many threat displays involve intention movements: movements that indicate the animal is getting ready for an action. In humans, a threatening intention movement is the clenched fist. In seagulls the threat posture is an upright head, ready to give a sharp peck. Cats, when bothered, may open their mouths and look like they are ready to bite, or they may administer a soft "mock bite" that does not break skin but conveys an unmistakable message: "Stop what you are doing." Mother cats do the same thing to kittens.

How do intention movements trigger avoidance behavior?

Intention movements show how conditioning can operate in a natural setting. An intention movement constitutes a signal that a punishing event is about to occur. After receiving discipline, a subordinate animal learns to avoid such punishment in the future. Viewed through the lens of operant conditioning, this pattern is called avoidance conditioning.


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