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Prairie Dogs: Do You Speak “Chien”?

By Shlomo Maital

       Suppose you are a biologist, choosing a topic for research. Would you choose to study, say, how prairie dogs communicate?   Probably not. Well, a Northern Arizona University professor named Con Slobodchikoff did. And what he found is amazing, and may change how we think about, and relate to, animals in general. And it shows how crucial it is for scientists to choose freely what they study – you never know where a breakthrough will come from.

       Prairie dogs live in underground colonies. They come up to forage, and are vulnerable to predators. So they are alert for danger and signal danger vocally.   Here is what Slobodchikoff found (reported in the New York Times, Science section, May 17):

       Prairie dog “warning calls” can identify and communicate the type of predator they spot; they also specify its size, shape, color and speed; they use their calls to structure a ‘message’ informing about a predator they have never seen before; and their calls are rich, informative and flexible.   Slobodchikoff believes this qualifies the prairie dog calls as a language.   It probably developed through evolution — prairie dog colonies better able to signal danger and state its nature in detail survive longer to procreate than less verbal counterparts. 

   The French called prairie dogs “petits chiens” because they thought they sounded like their small pets back home. So, we could call the prairie dog language “chien”.

     And thanks to Slobodchikoff, if we learn their chien language well, maybe we could communicate with prairie dogs someday.   This, in turn, might be helpful, if some day we need to communicate with aliens, in their language.

     How did Slobodchikoff figure out the chien language? Mainly, by having different people and dogs walk through the prairie dog colony, record their warning calls and then study them. He had people wear different colored T-shirts and traverse the colony, and then on a wire, sent different shapes and sizes of figures through it.

     Again, we are learning how sophisticated animals are, and how well they make use of their very tiny brains.   We humans boast of our huge brains – but perhaps we could make better use of them?  

 

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Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2017
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