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Prairie Dog Language Decoded, Turns Out They’re Talking About Us

Prairie Dog Language Decoded, Turns Out They’re Talking About Us

Written by Stephen Messenger

You might not think it to look at them, but prairie dogs and humans actually share an important commonality — and it’s not just their complex social structures, or their habit of standing up on two feet (aww, like people). As it turns out, prairie dogs actually have one of the most sophisticated forms of vocal communication in the natural world, really not so unlike our own.

After more than 25 years of studying the calls of prairie dog in the field, one researcher managed to decode just what these animals are saying. And the results show that praire dogs aren’t only extremely effective communicators, they also pay close attention to detail.

According to Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, who turned his vocalization analysis on the Gunnison’s prairie dog of Arizona and New Mexico, the chirps these animals use as ‘alert calls’ are actually word-like packages of information to share with the rest of the colony. Amazingly, these unique sounds were found to both identify specific threats by species, such as hawks and coyotes, and to point out descriptive information about their appearance.

And, when they’re talking about humans, that might not always be flattering.

“For example, a human alarm call not only contains information about the intruder being a human, but also contains information about the size, shape (thin or fat), and color of clothes the human is wearing,” says Dr. Slobodchikoff.

“When we do an experiment where the same person walks out into a prairie dog colony wearing different colored t-shirts at different times, the prairie dogs will have alarm calls that contain the same description of the person’s size and shape, but will vary in their description of the color.”

Here’s a remarkable video detailing what the researcher discovered:

While there’s still much to learn about how other animals use organized vocalizations to communicate, Dr. Slobodchikoff has been a pioneer in the field — discovering complex language systems in a variety of other species as well. And with that, perhaps we humans will begin to change our perspective on our place in the world, knowing now that ours is not the only voice to be heard.

This post was originally published by TreeHugger.


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Photo: chadh/flickr

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7:55AM PDT on Jun 26, 2013

thanks for sharing :)

12:51PM PDT on May 28, 2013

Just because we can't understand other animals, doesn't mean they don't have their own complex form of communications. LOL...I don't think us humans would like to hear what they say about us! Great article and film. Thanks for sharing!

11:43AM PDT on May 28, 2013

And they're probably saying how stupid, evil, arrogant and cruel humans are....

6:04AM PDT on May 27, 2013

Very interesting. I know that all animal have a way of communicating but I am curious to find out what they have to say about us.... thanks for sharing.

7:01PM PDT on May 25, 2013

Marianne C: Too bad that animals don't think in the murdering ways that humans do.. It takes a human to think up some plan like you dreamed up to murder and destroy. What possible right do humans have to overrun every last inch of their former prairie homes and replace it with millions of artifically bred livestock (which are destined to die in horrible ways by human greedy hands) or to ruin the ecology by paving it over with monocultures. If I was one of those prairie dogs you can be sure I would devise a battle plan to eliminate redneck ranchers and farmers, before they eliminated me..but that's because I can think like the virus called human.

2:25PM PDT on May 23, 2013

very interesting! not surprising though. animals are way more intelligent than we give them credit for.
they are so cute!!

10:39PM PDT on May 21, 2013

All creatures communicate.

11:49AM PDT on May 21, 2013

We think because we have a spoken language that we are the superior species and can act as we desire towards animals. This article refutes that belief and perhaps over time, I hope, we will come to realize we are not the only voice and we have much to learn from species that are different from us. Respect and compassion to all sentient beings should be our goal in surviving as a population!

9:31AM PDT on May 21, 2013

I am sure all animals talk about us, and how they hate us for what some humans do to them!!!

6:59AM PDT on May 21, 2013

Interesting information and I guess since we can communicate why shouldn't other animals communicating ..... we watch them, they watch us...........we can be quite dangerous and often can be quite comical also............thanks for thought provoking article!

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