Researcher decodes prairie dog language, discovers they've been talking about us (Video)

prairie dog photo
CC BY 2.0 chadh

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.

For more information on Dr. Slobodchikoff's research into communication in the natural world, check out his book Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals.

Tags: Animals | Biology | Evolution