Wed January 14, 2009
Earth Notes - Prairie Dog Communication
Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Prairie Dog Communication
One hundred years ago, prairie dog colonies stretched continuously across the Colorado Plateau from Seligman to Winslow and beyond. Today populations in northern Arizona are only 2 percent of what they were, and they continue to decline - just as researchers are discovering that these diminutive animals possess a uniquely complex system of communication.
Professor Con Slobodchikoff and his team at Northern Arizona University have been studying prairie dog calls near Flagstaff and across the Southwest for more than 15 years.
The calls prairie dogs make sound to humans like a series of short barks. But detailed acoustic analysis has shown that the calls can be divided into identifiable units that are comparable to the vowel sounds used in human speech. Differences in tone convey different meanings, just as is the case in languages like Chinese.
With these different sounds, the animals transmit detailed information to their neighbors in town - most often about approaching predators. They can warn one another whether an approaching threat is a red-tailed hawk, dog, coyote or human. The information is so specific that it includes features such as the size, shape and speed of the potential threat - even down to the color shirt a hiker is wearing.
Every prairie dog colony has its own dialect. Differences in how specific alarm calls are pronounced increase with distance. But researchers have yet to test just how well prairie dogs in Arizona can understand their relatives in New Mexico.