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The Language of the Prairie Dog

Updated on January 21, 2011

The Prairie Dog, named for its habitat and the warning "bark" it makes, is a small burrowing animal in the rodent family indigenous to North America, found primarily west of the Mississippi River in the United States. This little critter lives in colonies, called towns which can span hundreds of acres. Recently National Public Radio conducted an interview about the research being done to discover the meanings behind the warning calls that a Prairie Dog makes. It was so interesting and I want to share it with everyone.

We have all heard the squeaks and whistles the Prairie Dog makes when warning others that a predator is nearby; however, recently it was discovered through research that a Prairie Dog's seemingly abstract squeaks and whistles is a sophisticated language which we can call "Prairiedogese". With this language the Prairie Dog can actually distinguish and warn specifically about the type of predator approaching, using a different set of noises for humans, coyotes, hawks, etc,

Prairiedogease Studied

A professor from Northern Arizona University, Con Slobodchikoff, has studied the Prairie Dog for 30 years. Interested in the different sounds the Prairie Dog makes, Professor Slobodchikoff conducted a research project and claims that the Prairie Dog actually has a vocabulary of about 100 words and can distinguish size, shape, color, and how fast the predator is approaching.

How the Research was conducted...

The professor and a group of students concealed themselves within a Prairie Dog town and recorded the different sounds made when a predator approached. After analyzing the recordings, the group discovered that the warning calls were different depending on the species coming through the Prairie Dog's town and the group further concluded that a language was actually being spoken in describing the intruder.

Researching the Extent of Prairiedogese

To further research their findings, Professor Slobodchikoff decided to see how much distinguishing the Prairie Dogs could actually do and if they communicated further. He chose four of his students, dressed them exactly the same except for the color of their shirts. The four students, one by one, walked through the Prairie Dog's town while the rest of the group recorded the calls made by the Prairie Dogs. Different calls were made each time, for each one of the students walking through. This led to the conclusion that the Prairie Dogs were actually able to distinguish that the humans were wearing different colors.

Going One Step Further

Could the Prairie Dog see differences in shapes was the next question to be answered. The professor and the group of students built wooden boxes at each end of the Prairie Dog's town with something like a clothesline & reel strung between the boxes. From those boxes they slowly reeled through the town cardboard shapes of circle, squares, and triangles and recorded the calls of the Prairie Dogs. The result was different calls for each type of shape.

Conclusion

Professor Slobodchikoff concluded that the Prairie Dog actually has the capability of distinguishing colors, shapes, and sizes. Using "Prairiedogese" they are able to describe to their friends the shape, height, and color of an approaching predator.

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