Years ago, during a drive across the country, I was enticed into stopping in Interior, SD by a sign that touted the world’s largest prairie dog. To my disappointment, the 10-foot-tall rodent turned out to be made of concrete. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of a personal fascination of the five species of prairie dogs that are indigenous to the North American plains, which live in complex social units and dig vast networks of tunnels (the largest one ever discovered sprawled over a 25,000 square-mile area). Not only do the little fellers have amazing abilities, but they’ve got charisma, too, as evidenced by the nearly 20 million views garnered by this YouTube video.
Prairie dogs got their name from 19th-century wagon-train passengers who thought that their high-pitched yipping resembled the barking of canines. (Those settlers must have had some pretty weird dogs, because prairie dog calls, which you can listen to on this web site, don’t sound much like any pooch that I’ve ever heard.) As it turns out, however, prairie dogs’ squeaky vocalizations are more than just a peculiar quirk. In recent years, research has revealed that the diminutive fur balls have one of the most sophisticated languages in the animal kingdom, which surpasses even the communication of dolphins and apes and is perhaps second only to human speech in complexity.
We know this thanks largely to the work of Northern Arizona University biology professor Con Slobodchikoff, who arguably is the Noam Chomsky of burrowing rodents. (That is, in terms of the latter’s contributions to linguistics, since prairie dogs don’t have foreign policy debates.) Slobodchikoff has discovered that prairie dogs can communicate concepts such as colors, size, speed and direction, and have different alarm calls for different predators. As he explained in a recent interview with the Telegraph, a UK newspaper:
“Badgers can dig down into the burrows, however, so the prairie dogs run to their burrows and hunker down to avoid being seen and attracting the threat to their burrow.”
“When no predators were around and the calls were played back through loud speakers, the prairie dogs still responded to the relevant threat, which shows they understood the calls.”
As the Telegraph article notes, other species—including some monkeys—have predator-specific alarm calls as well. But what’s even more interesting is how prairie dogs get those distinctions across. Slobodchikoff has discovered that the rodents’ vocalizations contain layers of harmonics, or component frequencies, that impart multiple bits of information, like the parts of sentences uttered by humans. Subtle variations in the frequencies convey different information. Slobodchikoff and his colleagues found that prairie dogs made slightly different calls when a human walked through their area, depending upon whether the person was wearing a blue or a yellow shirt. The rodents’ calls also seemed to describe the body shape and coat color of dogs that accompanied the human visitors.
The discoveries about prairie dog language make it even more disturbing to think that vast numbers of the rodents have been killed as pests, and that their habitat is seriously imperiled by human activity. For more information about the efforts to protect these remarkable animals, check out the web site of the Prairie Dog Coalition. Learn more about black-tailed prairie dog, the most common species.