Prairie dogs are small, burrowing rodents native to the United States, where they are often treated as vermin by farmers and ranchers. However, scientists are now discovering that these ground squirrels may have some of the most sophisticated linguistic abilities in the animal kingdom, second only to humans (and possibly to dolphins.)
In the wild, prairie dogs are social animals and live in large colonies. They communicate with each other by sound, barking to warn their neighbors about approaching threats. According to the Telegraph, a team of scientists led by Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University has discovered that these alarm calls do much more than merely alerting the colony of approaching danger-they also accurately describe the potential threat, including such details as the type of predator, its speed and even colour.
It’s not surprising that prairie dogs would use different calls for different predators. The Telegraph noted that the animals’ have different coping strategies, depending on the type of predator and its hunting techniques. What is surprising is that Professor Slobodchikoff and his team found that subtle variations in the calls were consistently produced in response to different stimuli. For example, he told the Telegraph:
“We found that for humans the barks described the size and shape, the colour of clothes and the speed of travel. So a human walking through the prairie dog town with a blue shirt produces a call that is subtly different from the same human wearing a yellow shirt. For domestic dogs the barks described the shape of the dog and the coat colour. This might be useful as even within species of predator, there will be different hunting techniques so the extra information can help them distinguish between individual predators.”
The scientists also found that, like humans, prairie dogs seem to acquire language over time. Young prairie dogs did not give specific alarm calls, but seemed to learn the language as they grew up.