Does Berlitz Offer a Course in Prairie Dog?

Yes, that’s right – before your next trip to Arizona you may need to learn another language if you really want to be able to communicate with the natives.

Prairie dog about to raise its hand in English class (photo credit: Northern Arizona University/Con Slobodchikoff)

Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University has been studying Gunnison’s prairie dogs for the last three decades, and, as reported by BBC News1, believes that these social rodents have some very special language abilities. Slobodchikoff told the BBC:

Prairie dogs have the most complex natural language that has been decoded so far. They have words for different predators, they have descriptive words for describing the individual features of different predators, so it’s a pretty complex language that has a lot of elements.

According to the BBC article:

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.

For example, a single bark may be attuned to say “tall, skinny coyote in distance, moving rapidly towards colony”.

National Public Radio (NPR)2 recently featured Slobodchikoff’s prairie dog research as well, providing additional color about how Slobodchikoff and his students hid near prairie dog villages, used microphones to record shrill prairie dog predator warning cries (“It sounds kind of like ‘chee chee chee chee,’ “ says Slobodchikoff), and then analyzed the sounds using computer programs to parse out the differing frequencies and overtone layers of the prairie dogs’ warnings made in response to humans, dogs, coyotes, hawks and other perceived threats.

The NPR article describes how, after Slobodchikoff noticed that there were variations in the calls used to identify individual humans, he decided to perform further tests to see how specific the prairie dogs were being in describing what they saw:

He had four (human) volunteers walk through a prairie dog village, and he dressed all the humans exactly the same — except for their shirts. Each volunteer walked through the community four times: once in a blue shirt, once in a yellow, once in green and once in gray.

He found, to his delight, that the calls broke down into groups based on the color of the volunteer’s shirt. “I was astounded,” says Slobodchikoff. But what astounded him even more, was that further analysis revealed that the calls also clustered based on other characteristics, like the height of the human. “Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’ “says Slobodchikoff.

Amazingly, it doesn’t stop there. Slobodchikoff’s next move was to see if prairie dogs could differentiate between abstract shapes. So he and his students built two wooden towers on each side of a prairie dog village. They then made cardboard cutouts of circles, squares and triangles and ran them out along a wire strung between the two towers, so the shapes sort of floated through the village about three feet from the ground. And the prairie dogs, Slobodchikoff found, were able to tell the difference between the triangle and the circle, but, alas, they made no mention of the difference between the square and the circle.

Prairie dog warning system: "One if by land, two if by sea" (photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

As the BBC puts it, if Slobodchikoff’s conclusions are correct, it would mean that “the chattering rodents communicate in a more complex way than even monkeys or dolphins.”

Pretty impressive stuff.

What do you think, does prairie dog communication amount to speaking a “language”? Is human language unique in some fundamental sense, or is there a continuum between what the prairie dogs are telling each other and what we talk about among ourselves?

We will have future posts regarding animal communication and linguistic abilities, and further explore the nature of language.  Until next time, chee chee chee chee, and to all a good night!

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1BBC News, “Burrowing US prairie dogs use complex language,” February 2, 2010.

2NPR, “New Language Discovered: Prairiedogese,” January 20, 2011.

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