Con Slobodchikoff, PhD1, has been studying prairie dogs for over 30 years. His studies have focused primarily on Gunnison’s prairie dogs, whose natural habitat is just outside the doors of Northern Arizona University, where Slobodchikoff is a professor emeritus. After first observing how a colony of prairie dogs reacted to the presence of predators, he discovered that they didn’t just give the same alarm call each time – it sounded different depending on what type of predator the prairie dogs saw. But that wasn’t the full extent of the calls’ complexity. Slobodchikoff also noticed that even though the calls signaling a certain type of predator would follow a distinct pattern, they contained small nuances that varied with each individual predator of that type. For instance, the prairie dogs had a similar call for all coyotes, but there were subtle differences for each different coyote. Based on this observation, Slobodchikoff had a sudden insight: “What if they’re describing the physical features of each predator?”
A bit of experimentation soon proved his suspicions. After putting dogs, humans, and simple shape cutouts of all different forms, sizes, and colors within sight of the prairie dogs, analysis of the prairie dog calls revealed that the unassuming squeaks of alarm were rich with information.2,3
“They’re able to describe the colour of clothes the humans are wearing, they’re able to describe the size and shape of humans, even, amazingly, whether a human once appeared with a gun… In one 10th of a second, they say ‘Tall thin human wearing blue shirt walking slowly across the colony.'”
What’s even more interesting is that the “language” of prairie dogs is not ubiquitous. It is unlikely that different species of prairie dogs would be unable to understand the calls of each other. Slobodchikoff bases this theory on a comparison of sonograms from various species of prairie dogs, all of which were different even though the calls were describing the same things. Just like humans, prairie dogs seem to have many different languages. Slobodchikoff is working to create a translation device that could potentially decode all of these prairie dog languages, as well as those of other animals, to make them understandable for humans.
Hear him explain his findings in more detail in the video below:
James F. Hare, professor and associate head of the Department of Biological Sciences at University of Mantiboa, is also studying the fascinating vocalizations of prairie dogs. His research has focused specifically on the mysterious, and rather adorable, “jump-yip”. The jump-yip occurs when prairie dogs jump up on their hind legs, throw their arms into the air and their heads back, and emit a loud yipping sound. Much of the time, the yips are contagious, spreading throughout the colony like a wave of squeaks. Many researchers are unsure of what prairie dogs are communicating with these calls.
Look at the jump-yip in the video below:
Hare suspected that the jump-yips were being used as an emergency training exercise of sorts, helping the colony to prepare for times of danger. His team set out to record jump-yipping in 16 different prairie dog colonies. After observing over 170 different instances, they found that more foraging time was allowed for the group when more prairie dogs joined in on the yipping. Hare believes that this is because the yipping participation is demonstrative of the group’s watchfulness. If the first prairie dog to yip is satisfied that most group members are going to be on the lookout, then it is deemed safe to forage for extended periods of time. As to what may drive a prairie dog to initiate one of these training exercises in the first place, Hare and his colleagues are still searching for answers.4
Prairie dogs are highly social animals, living in large groups called “towns” that can consist of thousands of members. To survive, it is critical that every member of the community is on the lookout for danger, and is able to alert the town in case of danger. This dynamic may have spurred the initial development of prairie dog language, as a warning call containing specific information would certainly be more helpful in protecting the group than a general alarm.
This article was written by Amanda Pachniewska, founder & editor of AnimalCognition.org
1 – Website of Con Slobodchikoff
2 – Prairie Dogs’ Language Decoded by Scientists, CBC News
3 – Conn Slobodchikoff, William Briggs, Patricia Dennis
Decoding the information contained in the alarm calls of Gunnison prairie dogs.
The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America
4 – James F. Hare, Kevin L. Campbell, Robert W. Senkiw
Catch the wave: prairie dogs assess neighbours’ awareness using contagious displays.
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences