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The Hidden Language of Prairie Dogs

by Belinda Recio

In an episode of Friends, Monica asks Phoebe, “Do you think that your favorite animal says much about you?” Phoebe replies, “What? You mean behind my back?” If the prairie dog was Phoebe’s favorite animal, then the joke is on us, because prairie dogs appear to be doing just that: talking about us “behind our backs.”
Prairie dogs are rabbit-sized rodents native to the grasslands of Central and Western North America. They live in complex tunnel and chamber systems with separate rooms where they tend to their young, sleep, store food and eliminate. They have tightly-knit family groups that share food, groom one another and greet by kissing on the mouth. Families are often grouped into “wards,” which are like neighborhoods. Wards, in turn, are grouped into colonies, which are aptly called “towns.”
If prairie dogs are starting to sound somewhat like people, wait until you hear about their “conversational skills.” Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University has been studying one species of prairie dogs for over 30 years. When he first began, he noticed that when predators appeared, prairie dogs would shout out warning calls that would be repeated throughout the colony, like a kind of “emergency broadcast system.”
But the prairie dogs didn’t always respond the same way to the calls. Sometimes they immediately ran into their burrows; other times they moved quickly to the edge of their burrows, but stood upright and watched. Then there were times they just stood wherever they happened to be, as if weighing their options. Not all of the prairie dogs saw the predator, so the appearance of a specific predator couldn’t account for the difference in responses.
Slobodchikoff decided to figure out what was going on, so he set up a recording system. Whenever a predator—a coyote, dog, hawk or person—passed through the colony, he recorded the warning calls from the prairie dogs. He then used a software program to analyze the frequencies of the calls and discovered that each was different. The prairie dogs weren’t just shouting out a generic warning cry—they were specifying the type of predator.
After realizing that prairie dogs had different calls for each predator, Slobodchikoff started listening more closely and noticed their call for “human” wasn’t always exactly the same. He began to suspect they weren’t just differentiating between predators, but describing them as well. So he recruited four human volunteers and dressed them all the same except for the colors of their T-shirts, which were blue, green, yellow and grey.
One at a time, the volunteers walked through the colony while Slobodchikoff recorded the prairie dog calls. He had the volunteers change shirts four times, so that each volunteer walked through wearing each of the four colors. He recorded the calls and analyzed them again. The analysis showed that the calls consistently changed when the color of the shirt did. Slobodchikoff’s hunch was right: The prairie dogs were actually describing the person walking through their colony.
Further research showed that other details, such as the volunteer’s height and walking speed, resulted in additional changes. Slobodchikoff was able to correlate the changing circumstances with changes in the calls. The prairie dogs were communicating surprisingly specific information, such as, “Watch out for the tall, fast-walking human in the blue shirt.”
It turns out that prairie dogs have a complex communication system with, loosely speaking, a kind of grammar. In his book, Chasing Dr. Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals (St. Marin’s Press), Slobodchikoff explains, “They have parts of their calls that are noun-like: human, coyote, dog, hawk. They also have parts that are adjective-like: yellow, blue, green, big, small. And they have verb-like and adverb-like parts: running fast, walking slowly.”
As a result of habitat loss, bulldozing, poisonings and recreational shooting, prairie dog populations have been decimated by 95 percent. Learning that prairie dogs have a language could have a positive impact on the way people treat them.
The great naturalist, Henry Beston, wrote that animals are “living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations.” As a result of animal communication research we are finally starting to hear their voices. Let’s listen.
To learn more about Con Slobodchikoff’s work, visit conslobodchikoff.com
To learn about prairie dog conservation visit prairiedogpals.org
Belinda Recio, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, MA, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.

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