Can Prairie Dogs Talk?
Local photographer, Kathy Lichtendahl, recently shared a blog about our Wyoming prairie dogs and their complex vocabularies she observed from time spent with them, wyominguntrapped.org/blog/dog-day/. Just by observing, we know there is much more than just alert calls.
Now, read about this scientist who has created a thorough guide to the native and intricate tongue of a wild species. “Prairie-dog communication is so complex, Slobodchioff says – so expressive and rich in information – that it constitutes nothing less than language.”
Slobodchikoff and I approached the mountain meadow slowly, obliquely, softening our footfalls and conversing in whispers. It didn’t make much difference. Once we were within 50 feet of the clearing’s edge, the alarm sounded: short, shrill notes in rapid sequence, like rounds of sonic bullets.
We had just trespassed on a prairie-dog colony. A North American analogue to Africa’s meerkat, the prairie dog is trepidation incarnate. It lives in subterranean societies of neighboring burrows, surfacing to forage during the day and rarely venturing more than a few hundred feet from the center of town. The moment it detects a hawk, coyote, human or any other threat, it cries out to alert the cohort and takes appropriate evasive action. A prairie dog’s voice has about as much acoustic appeal as a chew toy. French explorers called the rodents petits chiens because they thought they sounded like incessantly yippy version of their pets back home.
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Photo by Ronan Donavan for the New York Times