Why Prairie dogs are actually smarter than meets the eye
Prairie dogs are herbivore rodents that live in North America. They are the size of a small dog and have reddish brown fur, short tails, small ears, and black eyes. Prairie dogs live in prairies and grasslands. They make their homes in burrows that they dig into the ground. The burrows have several entrances and can be up to 30 feet long. Prairie dogs use the burrows to protect themselves from predators and the weather. They live in family groups called a colony. In a family group, there are one or more adult males and up to four adult females. Prairie dogs can have between one and thirteen pups each year, but normally only six pups per female survive to adulthood.
But what's most fascinating about these otherwise ordinary creatures is their communication system. These furry little creatures spend most of their time communicating with one another through vocalizations or visual signals like tail wagging or nose touching. Their language is now considered to be the most complex of all animal languages (more complex than chimpanzee and dolphin language).
Scientists have decoded their language by recording the sounds they produce, when different animals approach them. It turns out they use different sounds not only to inform of the exact object approaching them but also to describe the color and shape of an object as well as the speed in which it moves. In an experiment, the same person approached them wearing differently colored T-shirts, and they produced a unique sound for different color. These sounds are difficult to describe with the human language, but if you hear them, you might recognize it as a "chirp." Here's an example of how they sound like.
Prairie dogs don't just use these chirps to warn their colony members about dangers; they also use them just to chat with each other or to express some emotion. One distinctive behavior that has been seen with them is Jump-Yip (rodent raises its front paws up, jumps and produces a yip sound). They were observed doing this when the predator leaves their territory, which might be a way of expressing joy.
Just like with human language, there are dialects in their vocalizations too. For instance, prairie dogs in Arizona sound different from prairie dogs in Colorado. Such vocalization dialects were not known to exist among social animals before the study of prairie dogs.
Some scientists even say that they have an enhanced version of our language with their different alarm calls such as "the enemy has a new weapon" or "we're being attacked by birds." These alarm calls can vary from sound to sound, meaning a predator coming from a certain direction with a specific speed. So one call might mean "snakes," while another could mean "coyotes."
The study of prairie dogs and their astonishing language could help us better understand the origins of our own language. How simple primate calls and gestures that our ancestors used to communicate with each other turned into complex languages we use today. It also sheds some light on how animal communication can evolve over time, creating different dialects.