If you’ve ever walked through a prairie dog town, you probably heard the prairie dogs’ high-pitched alarm call. But did you ever think they were talking about you? Recent research indicates that just might be exactly what they were doing.
It was allergies that led Con Slobodchikoff to focus his 30-plus years as a research scientist on prairie dog communication. Slobodchikoff began his career at Northern Arizona University studying beetles and their defensive secretions. Not too long into his research, however, he discovered that he was severely allergic to the beetle’s secretions, and needed to find a new subject to study. Because his background was in social behavior and communication, he chose to refocus his studies on prairie dogs, which conveniently lived in colonies in the Flagstaff, Arizona area.
Prairie dogs have a complex social structure. These rodents live in underground burrows in large colonies called towns. These animals cooperate with each other to defend their territory and protect each other from potential predators with the use of vocalizations called alarm calls.
When Slobodchikoff first began to research prairie dog communication, scientists knew that ground squirrels, which are related to prairie dogs, utilize two types of alarm calls – one that identifies aerial predators, such as hawks, and another that identifies terrestrial predators, such as coyotes. Slobodchikoff wondered if prairie dogs also had the same type of alarm system. What he discovered was that prairie dog communication was way more complex than anyone thought.
Not only do prairie dogs have different alarm calls for aerial or terrestrial predators, but within these two types of calls there is a great amount of variation. Experiments in the field indicate that prairie dogs not only identify the potential predator by general category (aerial versus terrestrial) but also by specific type (that is, hawk versus dog versus coyote versus human, etc.). Further research indicates that within their alarm calls, the prairie dogs also describe the size, shape, and color of the intruders.
In one experiment, Slobodchikoff had four human volunteers walk through the prairie dog town. Each volunteer was dressed almost exactly the same, except for the color of his or her shirt. When the researchers played back the recordings of the prairie dogs’ alarm calls, they found that there were significant differences in each call, clustered around the colors. Further analysis indicated that the prairie dogs were also commenting on the humans’ relative size. Such as, “Here comes the tall human in blue; here comes the short human in yellow.”
In another experiment, Slobodchikoff and his colleagues set up two boxes on stilts, with wires running in between them. The scientists clipped various shapes to the wires and pulled them across the prairie dog town. They found that the prairie dogs were able to distinguish between a triangle and circle shape, but did not recognize the square shape as different.
Since all prairie dog calls may sound the same to an untrained ear, Slobodchikoff enlisted the help of a computer scientist and computer program to suss out the nuances of each prairie dog’s call. Though the alarm calls only last for 1/10 of a second, analysis indicates that the prairie dogs cram in a sentence worth of information into that tiny fraction of time. With the help of computer analysis, Slobodchikoff and his colleagues are able to measure frequency and time elements within each call. Statistical analysis is used to determine if the variations are significant or not – that is, whether one sound is like another.
While some scientists question the attributed meanings to the variety in prairie dog alarm calls, Slobodchikoff is convinced that he has cracked the code of at least one aspect of prairie dog language. Slobodchikoff hopes that this research will help people to realize that prairie dogs, a keystone species that is often maligned and misunderstood, can communicate, think, and have thoughts similar to their own. He hopes that if people understand animals better, they will in turn treat them with more respect.
“We are not much different in many respects from many other animals and it’s time to start treating animals in a kinder, gentler way,” Slobodchikoff said in an interview about his research.
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