Prairie dogs have their own language, and humans have the ability to master it.
That’s what an Arizona biologist who has studied the rodents for 30 years believes. He has decoded their language and says humans can learn prairie dog tongue within two hours, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports.
Con Slobodchikoff, a professor emeritus at North Arizona University, learned prairie dog language by recording the sounds they made when they came into contact with different predators. Using a computer to analyze their sound patterns, Slobodchikoff and his team discovered prairie dogs make unique calls when confronted with coyotes, domestic dogs and humans.
What Slobodchikoff and his colleagues were surprised to discover was how prairie dogs distinguished their sounds when different individuals of the same species went by.
"They're able to describe the color of clothes the humans are wearing; they're able to describe the size and shape of humans, even, amazingly, whether a human once appeared with a gun," Slobodchikoff said.
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Slobodchikoff tested the theory by having one person walk out onto a prairie dog colony wearing different colored T-shirts at different times. “The prairie dogs will have alarm calls that contain the same description of the person's size and shape but will vary in their description of the color," Slobodchikoff said in a YouTube video about his work.
The rodents can also pack a lot of information into a single chirp. "In one tenth of a second, they say, 'Tall, thin human wearing blue shirt walking slowly across the colony,'" Slobodchikoff said.
In order to see if prairie dogs could differentiate between shapes, Slobodchikoff built two wooden towers on each side of a colony. He then fed cardboard cutouts of circles, squares and triangles along a wire so the shapes floated above the colony about three feet above the ground. Slobodchikoff said the prairie dogs vocalized the difference between circle and triangle but not between square and circle, according to NPR.
Prairie dogs, rabbit-size rodents that live in North America’s prairies, live in underground burrows. Described as social creatures, prairie dog burrows have defined nurseries, sleeping quarters and toilets. Slobodchikoff said prairie dogs were the ideal animals to study since they’re primarily social animals that live in small cooperative communities.
Slobodchikoff, whose recent book, “Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals,” was released earlier this year, said prairie dogs’ communication patterns may shed light on how other animals speak with one another.
"We could potentially have something maybe the size of a cell phone in five to 10 years where a dog would say, 'Woof,' and the device would say, 'I want to eat chicken tonight," or a cat could say, 'Meow,' and the device would say, 'My litterbox is filthy; please clean it.'"