Prairie dogs may have the most complex language in the animal kingdom
The tiny, burrowing rodents can relay a large amount of information in a seemingly simple bark.
Fri, Feb 05 2010 at 2:25 AM
An American professor is claiming that prairie dogs — tiny rodents found in the prairies and semi-desert grasslands of North America — communicate in a language more complex than that of monkeys, chimps and dolphins. If proven, it could mean that this barking squirrel cousin boasts the most intricate and versatile language in the animal kingdom, according to the BBC.
Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University has been studying the loquacious little mammals for 30 years. Along the way, he and his colleagues have recorded and analyzed a variety prairie dog calls, discovering that the rodents have developed different barks to describe and alert each other about predators.
Within a prairie dog colony, which can include hundreds of animals, the rodents consistently use the same unique barks to describe the same predators. For example, the bark to describe a coyote would be composed of different numbers of rhythmic chirps and frequency modulations than one to describe a hawk or a badger.
To test his theory that prairie dogs have different alarm calls and escape behaviors for different species of predators, Slobodchikoff recorded and played back various prairie dog calls over a loudspeaker. As expected, the prairie dogs exhibited different responses to the amplified cries — instantly bolting when the "coyote alert" was sounded, and crouching down low when the "badger alarm" was played.
Slobodchickoff argues that by varying the modulation of the call and the harmonics in their barks, prairie dogs can relay a large amount of information — for example, the kind, color, size, direction and speed of an approaching predator — in a short bark. He theorizes that the burrowing rodents evolved their complex language in response to the social demands of their multifaceted, highly organized societies.
Learn more about Slobodchickoff’s findings in the BBC natural history program, Prairie Dogs: Talk of the Town, broadcast as part of the Natural World documentary series.