Zoosemiotics is a term that was first coined by Thomas A. Sebeok in 1963 to designate the study of animal communication. In view of new development in this field of inquiry, zoosemiotics can be defined today as the study of semiosis within and across animal species.
The implications of this definition are crucial. First of all, the focus of zoosemiotics is not simply communication, but rather the broader notion of semiosis, i.e., following Charles Morris, the process by which something becomes a sign to some organism. Communication, the process by which a sign is coded and transmitted from a sender to a receiver, is thus to be considered a special case of semiosis.
Zoosemiotics is also interested in another important semiosic phenomenon, that of signification, occurring when the receiver is the only subject taking part in the semiosis, and a true sender is missing. In other words, zoosemiotics studies the way animals make sense out of each other and their environment. An important domain of zoosemiotics is anthropological zoosemiotics (or anthropo-zoosemiotics), i.e. the study of the semiosic relationships between humans and other animals.
Zoosemiotics studies both intraspecific and interspecific semiosis. Intraspecific semiosis designates the study of semiosis occurring within a single animal species, or rather within a local community, since the concept of species is still somewhat problematic. It applies to a group of animals that are assumed to share a common perception of their environment and similar ways of interpreting it. Interspecific refers to the kind of semiosis occurring between different species (or communities), i.e., between groups that do not totally share the above-mentioned perception and codification of their environment, except in a very basic sense. Any commonality or partial overlap is the very ground for establishing a – temporary or not – common code.
The use of the term “animal species” is here intended to cover the entire Animal Kingdom, including the human species. This means not only that a part of human semiosic behavior (namely, the non-linguistic one) falls under the zoosemiotic domain, as human ethology had already shown, but also that zoosemiotics investigates a field of knowledge that include both natural and cultural elements, and that – ultimately – Culture is to be considered a part of Nature as the notion of ecological niche suggests.