ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Prairie dogs, those little pups popping in and out of holes on vacant lots and rural rangeland, are talking up a storm.
They have different “words” for tall human in yellow shirt, short human in green shirt, coyote, deer, red-tailed hawk and many other creatures.
They can even coin new terms for things they’ve never seen before, independently coming up with the same calls or words, according to Con Slobodchikoff, a Northern Arizona University biology professor and prairie dog linguist.
Prairie dogs of the Gunnison’s species, which Slobodchikoff has studied, speak different dialects in Grants and Taos, N.M.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; and Monarch Pass, Colo., but they would likely understand one another, the professor says.
“So far, I think we are showing the most sophisticated communication system that anyone has shown in animals,” Slobodchikoff said.
Slobodchikoff has spent the last two decades studying prairie dogs and their calls, mostly in Arizona, but also in New Mexico and Colorado.
Prairie dog chatter is variously described by observers as a series of yips, high-pitched barks or eeks. And most scientists think prairie dogs simply make sounds that reflect their inner condition. That means all they’re saying are things like “ouch” or “hungry” or “eek.”
But Slobodchikoff believes prairie dogs are communicating detailed information to one another about what animals are showing up in their colonies, and maybe even gossiping.
Linguists have set five criteria that must be met for something to qualify as language: It must contain words with abstract meanings; possess syntax in which the order of words is part of their meaning; have the ability to coin new words; be composed of smaller elements; and use words separated in space and time from what they represent.
“I’ve been chipping away at all of these,” Slobodchikoff said.
He and his students have done work in the field and in a laboratory. With digital recorders, they record the calls prairie dogs make as they see different people, dogs of different sizes and with different coat colors, hawks, elk. They analyze the sounds using a computer that dissects the underlying structure and creates a sonogram, or visual representation of the sound. Computer analysis later identifies the similarities and differences.
The prairie dogs have calls for various predators but also for elk, deer, antelope and cows.
“It’s as if they’re trying to inform one another what’s out there,” Slobodchikoff said.
So far, he has recorded at least 20 different “words.”
Some of those words or calls were created by the prairie dogs when they saw something for the first time. Four prairie dogs in Slobodchikoff’s lab were shown a great-horned owl and European ferret, two animals they had likely not seen before, if only because the owls are mostly nocturnal and this kind of ferret is foreign. The prairie dogs independently came up with the same new calls.
In the field, black plywood cutouts showing the silhouette of a coyote, a skunk and an oval shape were randomly run along a wire through the prairie dog colony.
“There are no black ovals running around out there and yet they all had the same word for black oval,” Slobodchikoff said.
He guesses the prairie dogs are genetically programmed with some vocabulary and the ability to describe things.
Slobodchikoff has also played back a recorded prairie dog alarm call for coyote in a prairie dog colony when no coyote was around. The prairie dogs had the same escape response as they did when the predator was really there.
“There’s no coyote present, but the prairie dogs hear this and they say, ‘Oh, coyote. Better hide,’ ” Slobodchikoff said.
Computer analysis has been able to break down some prairie dog calls into different components, suggesting the critters have yet another element of a real language.
“We’re chipping away with this at the idea that animals don’t have language,” Slobodchikoff said.