Plausibility check of the whole "insect race". As background, I want some poor astronauts to "crash" (safely land, but because they had no other option, possibly some engine malfunction) and meet with my insectoid race.


How would they communicate?

I will put you in the situation. Imagine that you are magically "warped" to different planet with bit thicker atmosphere and bit lower gravity. You are still able to breathe, it just feels like being on top of mountain. You are able to move, just feel bit lighter.

And then you meet something huge, looking close to Earth ant, but 1 meter (cca 3 feet) in size.

  1. How would you tell such animal is actually not an animal, but intelligent creature?
  2. How would you try to tell them, that you "come in peace"?

You can assume:

  • You know you are on planet which has technology level of our current space exploration (you know about satellites on the orbit)
  • Your counterpart has same way of thinking as you, and you look the same ugly and scary to them as they to you
  • This creature is active member of Outdoors alien counterpart of Stackexchange on given planet (and is on a hike to the woods right now)
  • This creature is also a member of an alien Worldbuilding site, thinking of how two-legged aliens could look like
  • $\begingroup$ Did the astronaut get any information on the satellites in orbit? It's power source, the way it was designed, how large, how it communicates with the ground? Did the astronaut get any pictures of the satellites? $\endgroup$
    – tls
    Dec 12, 2014 at 15:55
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This is too short for an answer but there's a phrase I love: "Take two people who speak different languages, say German and Japaneese. Communication begins when both of them shut up and start listening." $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 12, 2014 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ "with bit thicker atmosphere".."like being on top of mountain" - um, what? $\endgroup$
    – Kreiri
    Dec 12, 2014 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ Satellites: As if in our world, the communication is ciphered and zipped. And you did not have enough time to deal with that. Atmosphere: The same level as on earth 3000 metres above the sea $\endgroup$ Dec 12, 2014 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ Clothes or anything with the ant? Or just naked ant on a stroll? If he has clothes - any patterns that might indicate color and binocular vision same as ours? Does the ant react to stimuli sound? Does it react to slight movement? $\endgroup$
    – tls
    Dec 12, 2014 at 16:14

6 Answers 6


How to tell they are intelligent

I think the easiest way, in both directions, to determine intelligence would be to see artifacts, such as clothing. If the ant has ant pants, it's probably intelligent. If it seemed intelligent, but didn't recognize the same about me, mathematical sequences would be a good bet. I can be fairly sure that an advanced race with its own stack exchange probably has things like counting and Fibonacci sequences, so I'd try to get it to recognize those, and use that as a basis for starting communication.

How to "come in peace"

Without communication, this would be tough. I'd probably rely on sitting down and being nonthreatening. Any human/Earth animal body language probably won't mean the same thing on this new planet, but I can at least try to make it obvious that I'm not attempting to attack. I'd avoid physical contact.

How to communicate

This would depend largely on how the other race communicates. If they speak and read, I'd probably start with basic pictographs to try to establish some common language. If they're blind and deaf and communicate through touch and electrical signalling, it would be much tougher to figure things out. In this case, I'd probably try to establish that I'm intelligent, and then follow them/let them lead the way in communication, since they'd probably have a better chance than me at teaching touch-based communication.

Alternately, I'd check and see if their radio signals are similar to human ones, and see if I can communicate with them via any onboard computers and radio transmitters that have survived the crash, but this would be a last ditch effort, since I'd prefer to be able to communicate physically with the inhabitants of my new planet.

  • $\begingroup$ How would you distinguish ant pants from a natural body decoration? After all, you cannot expect that those ants look exactly as our ants. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Dec 12, 2014 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ If they're tweed, I'll assume ant pants. If they look like they're part of the ant's body, I probably won't realize that they're pants, and will have to rely on other artifacts that the ant might be carrying. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Dec 12, 2014 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ To make your life harder, let's assume they communicate (like terran ants) by feromones. What will you (human astronaut) do if they put "do you came in peace" question on your face? Or even better "say password or I will kill you" message? $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2014 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar: I'd probably die. There's very little a human could do to communicate intent quickly, especially if they're mistrustful and/or aggressive. $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2014 at 0:50
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    $\begingroup$ Another thought: Some people give their dogs some clothes. This of course makes those dogs not more intelligent. You already know that there is an intelligent species on the planet; how do you know those ants are not their pets? $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Dec 13, 2014 at 9:28

Well one of the big things that would give a clue to the possibility of an intelligent species is the use of tools.

This does not mean you need to catch the ant using a hammer to pound something. Clothes, back packs, communication devices, hat, helmets etc. Humans rarely wander far from their homes without some tool to help them on their journey.

Now if the species is self-sufficient enough not to need these things and you just have a large naked ant, without even a bandoleer to hold a mid afternoon snack, you are going to be stuck with observation of behavior. This would be MUCH harder, since a species that has such different biology and world view 'intelligent behavior' could be very different. Not only that, are the ants, aggressive? passive? carnivores? 'stone age tech? information age?


This is just a slightly special case of the general question, "How could we tell if an alien race is intelligent or convince an alien race that we are intelligent?" Adding the detail that they are giant ants and the human ship has made an emergency landing would likely change the details, but the big question is tough enough without getting into details. I'm sure thousands of science fiction stories have been written exploring this idea.

For starters, what is the definition of "intelligent"? We often talk about using tools. But people have trained animals to use simple tools. I saw a documentary years ago about animals in nature using simple tools, like a bird trying to reach the water in a bottle with an opening too small for its head, dropping pebbles into the bottle until the water level rose to where it could drink it. Was that "intelligent"? Etc.

While the aliens in most SF stories think and act just like people, the only difference being that they have blue skin or pointy ears, some writers have tried to craft a truly alien intelligence. (Aside from the dull standby "they have no emotions", which always leaves me wondering, Then why do they do anything at all? It's a paradox to say that they have no emotions because they are so proud of their refined logic. Isn't "pride" an emotion? If they don't love or hate anything, then that must mean they don't love life. So why would they lift a finger to protect themselves from a wild animal attack or a heavy object falling on them? Wouldn't they all be dead within a few months? Etc. But anyway ...) Could aliens have a totally different mathematics, for example? Could they never have thought of the idea that 2+2=4 but be very advanced in, say, Euclidean geometry? It seems theoretically possible but difficult to imagine how it would work in practice.

Would aliens wear clothes, or is that something peculiar to humans? One could imagine aliens who do not get sexually excited at the sight of each others' bodies -- maybe who don't reproduce by sex at all -- and who have never thought of the idea of fashion, i.e. clothes for decoration, and so only wear clothes when necessary to protect them from extreme weather, etc.

Aliens might communicate in a way imperceptible to us, like they might have radio transmitter and receivers built into their bodies. Or they might communicate in a way that we can perceive, but that would be too far from our thinking or too subtle for humans to notice. Like emitting odors in a specific pattern, blinking their eyes in Morse-like code, etc. I'm reminded of an SF story I read many years ago -- sorry, I forget the title and author -- but there's a scene where humans meet aliens, and eventually one of the humans figures out that the aliens communicate by sending microwave messages. At this point one of the other humans says, "You mean they communicate by telepathy?" And the first person says, "Sort of. But to them, so do we. They don't think of sound as a method of communication, so when we talk to each other" etc.

Anyway, books can and have been written on this subject. I can't imagine you'll get a complete, definitive answer here. I'm just throwing a few thoughts in to chat, basically.


First do not start by attempting to shake its "hand" - haha!

The first thing that occurred to me is that you are already providing the insectoid creature with a host of stimuli that you do not typically attempt to control for the purposes of communication:

  • scents and particulates - we are a mess of bacterial colonies, bodily fluids, hormones, pheromones and active pathogens, dead skin cells, crystallized proteins, acidified water and water vapor . . . Our ant friend might not be able to stand the smell of you and worse, might have an extreme allergic response to you. You might even be saying some things you really don't have on your mind (eg. "wanna go on a date, you sexy thing, you?")

  • electromagnetic fields - your brain and heart are creating electromagnetic fluctuations that could be reasonably be detected from 6 to 9 feet with sensory organs similar to those in catfish and sharks. You might be saying "HI!" once or twice every second or counting "1,2,3,4,5 . . ." - which could get annoying for your listener.

  • electromagnetic radiation - you are emitting 900+nm wavelength light as long as you are warm enough to be alive. You might appear to the ant creature as a blurry, brightly glowing creature. It might associate you with fire or the sun.

To deal with all of these, I hope you keep your space suit on for just a little while - an intelligent creature (especially one with an exoskeleton) should understand that you need those hard things on the outside for protection.

Once you have established that the ability and desire to communicate exists (using methods described by other users here), I would suggest attempting to open one communication channel at a time, allowing your host to observe and in turn, looking for any kind of observable reaction. If there is more than one creature, you may have to watch the others for signs of a reaction - they may communicate using a method you cannot observe directly.

try moving from what you assume are secondary communication channels to what you assume are primary communication channels. The first thing you want to communicate is that you are attempting to communicate.


  • light - if the creature lives above ground on an illuminated planet, this is a safe bet and you can set the stimuli to fall within ambient light levels

  • by extension, gestures, if you think you are sensing a gestural pattern from the creature.

  • sounds - at levels just above ambient noise levels

  • ordering objects in the nearby physical environment (large to small, hard to soft, etc.)

  • following a logical path around obstacles to and from a destination (an ant creature should appreciate that :) )

  • Providing the creature with something it needs or wants, determined by observation - something it eats, for example.

Eventually, you could open the visor of your helmet and attempt communication with controlled emotional responses using some form of biofeedback (such as an immediate response from the ant creature). This would be exposing the creature to hormones, pheromones, gases, particulates and foreign pathogens though - so, don't be surprised if you run out of time to test communication methods because your communication partner is asphyxiating, offended, enraged, high, or dead.


The first question is: What would be the first reaction of the ants on seeing the humans?

  • Run away. Well, that's completely natural behaviour, and there's nothing you can tell from that; also, they are now gone, and so any communication attempt is moot anyway. However if they are intelligent, they'll likely come back (not necessary the same individuals) in order to learn more about those strange ugly creatures (if only to determine whether they are dangerous), or if the astronauts are unlucky, to kill them (in which case the second option now applies).

  • Attack. Trying to communicate in that case is probably moot because you try to keep alive. However the attack behaviour would likely give away the intelligence; if not immediately, then after later analysis (which would have to be done because, after all, they could attack again, and you want to be prepared).

  • Ignore you. Well, in that case, you could observe them in order to determine whether they are intelligent. You could also try to get their attention, but then you risk that they would attack you. Of course, it could also lead to the next option. Of course you could also use being ignored to study them to learn more on how to finally get to the last option (but careful to not do anything they might see as attack, leading to the previous option). A long time being around without any conflict would also make them more likely to believe that you're not going to attack them.

  • Show interest in you. That's the best case: The way they show interest almost certainly will give away their intelligence, and moreover you have their attention without having to defend yourself. So now you are in a situation where you can try to communicate.

As ckersch already wrote, the best way to signal that you are intelligent is to use mathematics and build on that. And the only way to signal that you are peaceful is to avoid anything that could be misunderstood as attack, to the point you can do that (you don't know anything about them; maybe what we would consider normal speaking to them would be so loud that it hurts; carefully listening to them and their world could give hints about that).


It's been suggested that clothing could be a sign that the opposing species is intelligent. I wouldn't consider that necessarily true. Although no other species on Earth besides humans wears clothing, clothing for humans originated for pursoses of protection against the environment (cold, storms, insects, predators). In that way, clothing was a kind of tool, and we do know of other animals that have tool use skills.

That being said, the complexity of the clothing would be an absolute clue, and your alien ant might be able to pick up on that, and encourage him/her/it to stick around to figure out how to communicate.

An insectoid, however, having an exoskeleton, may not have evolved any need for clothes. But there could be a substitute identifier. I'd suggest an external "tattoo" or marking that the ant species uses to mark themselves as identifiers. Self-recognition is one of the traits we look at when determining the intelligence level of other species. That could be a clue for the human, who then might try to replicate the marking on a rock wall or some such. The ant would be able to recognize the pattern, and communication begin from there.

  • $\begingroup$ Tattoo is important for a species with sight as main sense. Insectoids may (and in fact, do) communicate by pheromones. So sign of peace would be to exchange sticky smelly substances. Really easy to fail that test! $\endgroup$ Dec 12, 2014 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ "Although no other species on Earth besides humans wears clothing..." [Citation Needed] $\endgroup$
    – NPSF3000
    Dec 13, 2014 at 5:33

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