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.”