Vanishing US Prairie Dogs May Speak the Most Complex Animal Language


Photo via Ktismatics

In our charming-but-fascinating animal news of the day, scientists believe that they've found an animal with even more sophisticated speech than dolphins: the US burrowing prairie dog. Yes, after recording the species' calls, they've determined that the animals have different "words" that correspond to different predators. An approaching coyote ushers forth one call, while a badger inspires another. And, of course, the prairie dogs--now thought to be the speakers of the most complex language in the animal kingdom--are declining rapidly in numbers.I say of course because it seems that every time a discovery further proing how wondrous the natural world is made these days, it's paired with news that we're doing something or other to destroy it. Guess that's nothing new. These burrowing prairie dogs, found in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, are currently considered pests by ranchers, who've been exterminating them whenever possible for decades. They used to number in the billions (!) but their numbers have "plummeted" in recent years. The species is in a rapid decline.

Perhaps the prairie dogs can develop a call to warn each other from ranchers--that's at least what researchers think they did facing so many other predators in the natural world. The BBC reports:

The researchers found that the prairie dogs are confronted by so many predators that they have evolved different "words" to describe them all. These words are barks and sounds that contain different numbers of rhythmic chirps and frequency modulations. Individual prairie dogs have different tonal qualities, just as human voices differ, but different rodents use the same words to describe the same predators, allowing the alarm call to be understood by the rest of the colony.
Which, amazingly, allows a prairie dog to "say" in a single bark a complex description like ""tall, skinny coyote in distance, moving rapidly towards colony." Scientists believe the prairie dogs do this by varying modulation of the call and the harmonics of the bark, allowing to stuff a "vast amount of information into a very short sound."

Now they just need a bark for "human moving in down the block, let's get the hell out of Dodge."

Via the BBC
More on Prairie Dogs
EPA Poisons Prairie Dogs ; Then They Bleed to Death
States Get Ranked for Their Prairie Dog Support

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