YIPS, BARKS AND CHIRPS: THE LANGUAGE OF PRAIRIE DOGS
by Margo DeMello (photos courtesy Prairie Dog Pals)
Anthropologists, linguists and philosophers have long held that one of the defining differences between humans and non-human animals is the use of symbolic language. While scholars readily acknowledge the complex systems of communication many animals have, human language uses arbitrary but meaningful symbols to communicate abstract concepts to others who share the language. Symbolic language allows us to discuss difficult concepts such as the past and the future, hard-to-conceptualize concepts like heaven, and even to joke and lie. Animals are said to not have the capacity for such concepts, although recent work involving the teaching of American Sign Language to chimpanzees and gorillas has challenged this long-held theory.
But do other animals, such as prairie dogs, have the capacity to use language to communicate complex concepts to each other?
Dr. Constantine Slobodchikoff says yes.
Slobodchikoff, a biologist at Northern Arizona University who is fluent in four languages himself, has been studying prairie dog language and social behavior for over twenty years. He has found that prairie dogs have different words, or alarm calls, for different types of predators (including humans), that their alarm calls include descriptive information about the specific predator, and that they will react differently when hearing an alarm call for a human, for example, vs. for a coyote. He and his students, who study Gunnison’s prairie dogs throughout Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, have also found that prairie dogs exhibit geographical variation in their language, similar to human dialects, although prairie dogs from different regions can understand each other, just as Cajuns can understand English speakers from Pittsburgh or Chicago.
When he first began his research on prairie dogs, who were chosen as a subject because of their high degree of social behavior and ease of studythey are diurnal and live very close to his universityhis first hunch was that their alarm calls might distinguish between terrestrial and aerial predators such as coyotes vs. hawks. What he found, however, went much deeper than this.
Slobodchikoff’s research not only demonstrates the complexity of prairie dog communication, but implies that prairie dogs can discuss things that are not present, a process known as displacement, which again is typically thought to be unique to human language. The idea that prairie dogs can discuss a tall human dressed in blue, in the absence of said human, is an extraordinary idea and challenges deeply held notions about animals’ cognitive abilities.
Another incredible discovery is that prairie dogs can create new words to refer to new things or creatures in their environment, a concept known to linguists as productivity, which, again, was thought unique to humans. Animals are thought to only be able to produce a limited number of sounds, or calls, which cannot be combined to produce new calls. Today, using computer techniques, Slobodchikoff is working on deconstructing prairie dog grammar, by locating the vocalizations that are analogous to phonemes, and demonstrating how these sounds are assembled into word-like structures, which are then assembled into sentences.
Working both in the field as well as in the laboratory with sensitive directional microphones, Slobodchikoff and his students record and play back a variety of prairie dog calls, and create artificial situations to which the prairie dogs respond by yipping both old and new sounds. Slobodchikoff then translates those sounds into words and word parts, or morphemes, and has even been able to discern prairie dog syntax, which refers to the rules that govern the order of the words. He proposes as well that prairie dog calls may include, embedded within the barks, information about who the call is intended for, whether the danger is imminent, and the appropriate response. But figuring out the complexities of not just prairie dog vocabulary, but grammar and syntax as well, is no easy task, even for a UC Berkeley-trained biologist.
Why is knowing that prairie dogs can distinguish between tall blue humans and short red humans, or red-tailed hawks and bald eagles, important?
Prairie dogs face systematic extermination throughout the American West. They are viewed as pests by ranchers, an inconvenience to developers and a hazard to city employees, who worry about the dangers posed to the public by prairie dog burrows in parks and on playgrounds. Prairie dogs are poisoned, drowned and bulldozed to make way for shopping centers and housing developments, and few people give them much thought at all.
Animal lovers and environmentalists know the survival and health of prairie dog colonies directly contributes to species diversity and that their extinction can lead to the extinction of other species. But they also see the survival of prairie dogs as important because they know how complex and intelligent these animals are. Since many people see animals as worthy only when proven intelligent, Slobodchikoff’s research has the potential to change many people’s opinions of what are often thought to be lowly rodents. Even more importantly, by showing that small animals like prairie dogs are more intelligent than people may think, this research may encourage people to assume that other animals, too, are complex, free of human interference. As Slobodchikoff says, “Having language implies fairly sophisticated cognitive processes, and gives animals tools to think about the world around them. This can put animals on a different plane from the “dumb brute” image that so many people seem to have, and raises ethical concerns about how we treat our animals.”
Dr. Slobodchikoff, who teaches biology and animal behavior at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, has published papers in such diverse publications as Behavioural Processes, Journal of Arid Environments, Animal Behavior, Canadian Journal of Zoology, Ethology, Behavioural Processes, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, American Zoologist, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Journal of Mammalogy, and Intelligent Automation and Soft Computing, as well as in books like “Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and Animals”; “The Cognitive Animal: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives on Animal Cognition”; “A New Ecology: Novel Approaches to Interactive Systems”; “The Ecology of Social Behavior”; “Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Interactions”; and “Kinship with the Animals”.
Dr. Slobodchikoff’s research is especially important to New Mexico. Because prairie dog survival is so critical to the survival of other New Mexico species, and thanks to the continuous expansion of our urban areas, prairie dogs are more threatened now than ever before. Both Santa Fe and Albuquerque are witnessing the loss of prairie dog habitats in and around the cities, and action must be taken now before our prairie dogs, and the species that rely on them, are gone forever. Thankfully, groups like Prairie Dog Pals, an Albuquerque-based organization dedicated to the welfare, preservation and care of urban prairie dogs within New Mexico, are working to protect both prairie dog habitat and the animals themselves.
Dr. Slobodchikoff will be the keynote speaker at Prairie Dog Pal-ooza, a benefit event supporting Prairie Dog Pals, on Sunday, April 22. The event will be held from 2-4 pm at St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church in Albuquerque, and will include a silent auction, refreshments, and entertainment by country-blues band Selsun Blue. Advance ticket sales are $20, or 2 for $35. To buy your tickets, contact Tammy Fiebelkorn at 505-410-3884 or go online to www.prairiedogpals.org .
Margo DeMello teaches at Central New Mexico Community College and is Administrative Director, House Rabbit Society.
What most people fail to realize is that what they think of animals reflects the way they think of themselves.
- Susan Chernak McElroy
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