Prairie dogs speak

When my granddaughter lived in Colorado, there was a sprawling prairie dog colony just a few blocks away, and we’d take walks there. The prairie dogs were very attentive, and would react with a chorus of continuous yips and squeaks as we strolled through their neighborhood. Little did we know, they were having a conversation about us.

Con Slobodchikoff, PhD, has been studying prairie dogs for over 30 years. His studies have focused primarily on Gunnison’s prairie dogs, whose natural habitat is just outside the doors of Northern Arizona University, where Slobodchikoff is a professor emeritus.

After first observing how a colony of prairie dogs reacted to the presence of predators, he discovered that they didn’t just give the same alarm call each time – it sounded different depending on what type of predator the prairie dogs saw.

But that wasn’t the full extent of the calls’ complexity. Slobodchikoff also noticed that even though the calls signaling a certain type of predator would follow a distinct pattern, they contained small nuances that varied with each individual predator of that type.

For instance, the prairie dogs had a similar call for all coyotes, but there were subtle differences for each different coyote. Based on this observation, Slobodchikoff had a sudden insight: “What if they’re describing the physical features of each predator?”

A bit of experimentation soon proved his suspicions. After putting dogs, humans, and simple shape cutouts of all different forms, sizes, and colors within sight of the prairie dogs, analysis of the prairie dog calls revealed that the unassuming squeaks of alarm were rich with information.

“They’re able to describe the colour of clothes the humans are wearing, they’re able to describe the size and shape of humans, even, amazingly, whether a human once appeared with a gun… In one 10th of a second, they say ‘Tall thin human wearing blue shirt walking slowly across the colony.’”

I don’t want to know what those dogs were saying about me, but they better have been making flattering comments about Iliana. “Small cute human toddler, awwwww.”


  1. says

    So it’s a agglutinative, like a variation of Finnish?

    In one 10th of a second, they say ‘Tall thin human wearing blue shirt walking slowly across the colony.’”

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Iliana IS super cute (obviously your contribution to her genome for external attributes was minimal, PZ), but she still would be a scary giant to a prarie dog.

  3. unclefrogy says

    I wonder if they can recognize individuals, I would guess that most of the predators that came their way coyotes would be local as they are territorial would they be recognize as having been there before and their call would indicate that? Crows are able to do that are other animals ?

  4. says

    Ornithological research at the University of Montana has observed that some birds also have calls that distinguish who’s in the neighborhood based on threat-level.

  5. PaulBC says

    It makes me think of The Far Side. But in reverse: “What prairie dogs say. What we hear.”

  6. PaulBC says

    KG@4 I love “Professor in Unconventional Computing” It sounds like something out of the many SyFy channel series from 10 years ago or more that I have been catching up on recently (kind of caught up and bored by now).

    I’ve seen Adamatzky in reference to complex systems but didn’t know he had such a cool title.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    @4 I have certainly witnessed conversations where I knew that “that’s just the mushrooms talking.”

  8. nomdeplume says

    As reseach continues to get more sophisticated the idea that “only humans have language”, always more of a religious than a scientific argument, has become completely untenable. Like all other supposed absolute distinctions between humans and all other animals. Why would there be a single attribute that only humans have?

  9. billseymour says

    In Mortimer Adler’s The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes, he tries to save Utilitarianism from the argument that it’s just Relativism for H. sapiens. His argument is that humans are the only entities deserving of ethical consideration because we use common nouns. (Yes, really.)

    (I’m not sure why he bothered because one can be suspicious of Utilitarianism for a completely different reason:  “the greatest good for the greatest number” is largely empty of meaning absent a way to calculate it.)

  10. larpar says

    Have Slobodchikoff’s studies been replicated? Maybe he’s barking down the wrong hole.

    Not really disputing anything, just wanted to make a barking up the wrong tree joke.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    As I doubt certain MAGA hats are capable of passing the “mirror test” of sapience, I am not at all surprised if the gap between us and other animals is smaller than expected.

  12. hillaryrettig1 says

    From “America’s Meerkats” on out, that was fun and also absolutely superb science communication.