Who would have thought that every squeal, squeak and chirp that comes out of the mouth of the humble Gunnison Prairie dog means something? A three-decade study of these rodents, has revealed a language so complex, that is surpasses the communication skills of dolphins, whales and even non-human primates like monkeys!
The stunning findings were revealed by Professor Con Slobodchikoff, who has been recording and studying the sounds of these animals for the last 30 years and, has identified a vocabulary comprising of least 100 words.
The smart little rodents use their words to identify not only who the predator is -i.e. a coyote, human, dog, or a particular kind of bird, but also, details like their shape, size, color and even the pace at which they are approaching.
To conduct his research the professor and a number of students from Northern Arizona University, hid inside the prairie dog villages and recorded all the sounds they made. The more they listened to the 'words', the more they were able to distinguish the nuances or subtle distinctions between them.
What they discovered is that these smart creatures are able alert their entire group of many details, (the predator, its color, location. etc.etc.) by sounding just one single 'word'. They do that by modulating or varying the pitch of their voice.
What was also interesting is how the animals responded to each kind of predator. In the case of a coyote, they quickly scampered into their burrows, while for badgers, they simply laid low, to avoid being spotted.
To test their theories, the scientist played back some of the recorded sounds, as well as, asked four volunteers to walk into the prairie village, wearing a different colored shirt each time. In the first case, the rodents reacted exactly the same way they had in the presence of the real predator. In the second case, they called out a different sound each time, even though they were all humans - This confirmed the team's suspicion that in that single call, the animal had not only conveyed that the predator was a human, but also, whether he/she was fat/thin and the color of the shirt! Simple fascinating!
While dubbed dogs thanks to their canine-like barks, Prairie dogs are actually ground dwelling squirrels and part of the rodent family, which includes not only rats and mice, but also, porcupines and beavers. The Gunnison Prairie dog, found primarily in North America, is one of five species that is alive today.
While they are useful in the fields because they provide food for predators, help aerate the soil and also increase water penetration, they are not popular with farmers, who view them as pests that compete with their livestock, for resources.
Professor Slobodchikoff's experiments will be aired in a documentary entitled Prairie dogs, talk of the town, on Britain's BBC2 channel, on February 3rd.
Resources: news.bbc.co.uk, wikipedia.org, pysorg.com