Secret language of prairie dogs

Sometimes when I go on walks I see birds gathering in large groups perched high above me in the trees.  They chirp and tweet and make such a commotion it sounds like a party.  Often I have wondered if they are actually communicating complex details to each other, perhaps trading their favorite bug hunting spots or best lake to bathe in.  Humans have always asked the question “is there other intelligent life out there?”  Instead of looking outside our solar system for intelligent life, why have we never looked at the creatures around us?  Obviously they too are evolving just as we did and some will eventually take our place as we leave this rock to search the cosmos for answers.  Whales, Dolphins, and now… Prairie dogs?

As preposterous as the title of this article sounds, it is true: Prairie dogs have their own tongue.

Prairie dogs are closely related to the squirrel, and are about the same size.  They live in burrows deep in the ground and inhabit North America and combine in small families.  The underground homes they dig include safety exits, storage rooms, sleeping chambers, and even a privy.  Prairie dog colonies sometimes stretch for miles and include hundreds of families.  Estimates from over a century ago speak of over a billion prairie dogs alive in America, with some colonies existing with hundred of millions of creatures.  Today their numbers have been reduced by farming and urban sprawl, but the behaviors they reveal are increasingly proving to scientists that they have a complex language unique to their species.  To date it is the most complicated language in the animal kingdom.

Dr. Con Slobodchikoff from Northern Arizona University has been researching prairie dog communication for over 20 years.  He records both video and audio of the prairie dogs as they respond to new stimuli in their natural environment, and has concluded that they have a very complex vocabulary.  He claims that prairie dogs even use nouns, verbs and adjectives, the foundation of the human language.  Dr. Slobodchikoff used sonograms to determine how prairie dogs reacted to environmental stimuli.  His work has concluded that they are able to “speak” to each other and call out an “alert” warning about he presence of a coyote, hawk, or human being.  In each case there was a very distinct difference in the underlying tones of a prairie dogs call for each of these creatures.

To further his testing, Dr. Slobodchikoff conducted the same test but this time had humans dress in black clothing with a coat, hat, pants, and shoes- all black.  The humans were dressed identically except for one thing, each one wore a different color shirt.  One wore yellow, another blue, a third red, and finally gray.  The humans walked through the field and the prairie dogs made their calls, Dr. Slobodchikoff was there to record the results and rush them back to the lab for further analysis.

It turns out that the prairie dogs weren’t just voicing that humans were in the area, they were actually voicing differences in the color of their clothing!  Not only that, but further and more detailed analysis of the vocal patterns reveals that they are actually describing the humans and noticed variations in height and weight of each human and passed the information off accordingly to other dogs who repeated to the rest of the colony what was occurring above ground.

This was astounding and amazingly groundbreaking work and immediately gave Dr. Slobodchikoff media attention via Radio Lab and a spot on NPR news which then spread out across the blogosphere in posts such as the one I am compiling for you on NERD TREK.

I personally found this small story which was just a blip on the radio to be a much bigger step in the ongoing evolution of various species on the planet.  Have you read the stories on apes who walk upright and use whatever tools are available to obtain food?  There is definite evidence that species all around us are evolving which is even more reason to preserve their natural habitats.  They must be allowed to evolve without exposing our adverse environmentally damaging effects to them.

Dr. Slobodchikoff has conducted additional tests such as running large wooden cut-out shapes from one shade to another on a rope over the prairie dogs habitat.  The creatures were able to tell the difference between the triangle and the square, but not the square and circle.  The Doc believes that this is due to the fact that traditionally terrestrial creatures tend towards the circular or square shape, whereas the triangular shape lends itself more to an aerial predator.

The doctor continues his research as you read this in the hot Arizona desert, gazing out upon hundreds of cute furry animals who go about their daily business.  Someday, far in the future these critters may just have their own economy and culture.  In as far as “living green” is concerned, they are already a hundred years ahead of us.

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About Jonathan G. Nelson

Jonathan G. Nelson is the editor-in-chief and owner of NERD TREK. He is also owner/publisher at AAW Games / AdventureAWeek.com, a tabletop gaming company based in Snoqualmie, WA. Connect with Jonathan via Facebook.