Prairie Dogs

In the mid-1980’s, Dr. Con Slobodchikoff began studying the social behavior and communication of prairie dogs.  Along with a team of researchers, he set up videotapes with sound recording capabilities on the edges of various prairie dog colonies.  These devices were hidden so that the animals could not see them.  Slobodchikoff took the recordings to his lab, slowed them down, and analyzed them.  What he discovered was quite amazing.

A coyote, the main prairie dog predator, caused a clear and identifiable response.  However, a silhouette of a coyote run on a wire through the colony elicited a specific response.  It was the prairie dogs’ word for coyote, but distinctively different.  This proved that the prairie dogs were capable of a language skill called displacement: the ability to talk and think about things that are not directly in front of them.

In another experiment, Slobodchikoff had people with different colored shirts walk through the colonies.  He found a consistent variation in the calls of the prairie dogs.  Even in separate colonies, the animals had the same call for blue shirt, green shirt, red shirt, and so on.

Not only did the prairie dogs have words for colors, they had specific sounds for attributes like size, speed of travel, and threatening or non-threatening behavior.  There were even different words for various breeds of dog.

When a man with a yellow coat and a separate man with a yellow coat carrying a gun were presented to the prairie dogs, the men were identified differently. When the man with the yellow coat and gun came the next day without the gun, he was still given the same bark from the day before when he had a gun. The memory of the name for this one specific person was held onto mentally by the prairie dogs for a period of two months.  As Slobodchikoff translated these sounds into words and word parts, he was even able to discern prairie dog syntax.

An additional experiment was performed in which isolated prairie dogs were shown something they had surely never seen before: a European ferret.  Not only did the prairie dogs create a new word for the animal, but when the new predator was shown to widely separated prairie dogs from completely different colonies, each barked the same word as the initial colony to describe the never-before-seen animal.

The ability of separate colonies to coin the same new word for something they have never seen before was examined again.  New words were continually created, and the same words were used by all prairie dogs tested.  This ability to develop identical new words between separated groups does not occur in human languages.  A new term for an unfamiliar object is not the same from one group of people to the next.  But the prairie dog bark for a specific animal or object along with that animal/object’s characteristics is identical between all prairie dogs, even when isolated from one another in remote colonies.

Following years of controlled experiments, Dr. Slobodchicoff also learned that every prairie dog colony has its own regional dialect.  An Arizona prairie dog would sound a little different compared to a New Mexico prairie dog, and both would sound different compared to a Texas prairie dog.

Prairie dogs are seen as pests and rodents.  They face systematic extermination throughout the American West.  Actually, few people give them much thought at all.

Leave a Reply