Prairie Dogs Decoded Language: What Are Rodents Saying About Humans? [VIDEO]

By iScienceTimes Staff on June 24, 2013 5:22 PM EDT

prairie dogs
Prairie dogs have a complex language they use to alert one another about predators, says Arizona biologist Con Slobodchikoff. Prairie dogs can even describe concepts like shapes to one another. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The language of prairie dogs has been decoded by an Arizona biologist, who says that humans can learn to speak "prairie dog" in about two hours.

Con Slobodchikoff, a biologist and a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, has studied prairie dogs for 30 years. He started studying the animals after it was reported that ground squirrels made certain sounds to warn each other of flying predators, and different sounds they'd make to warn of ground predators -- their own language, basically.

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One day, while studying prairie dogs, it hit Slobodchikoff that the animals might be making different calls not only for different types of predators, but that they might be "talking" about different individuals within the same species.

"With a sudden intuition, I thought, 'What if they're describing the physical features of each predator?'" he recalled.

So Slobodchikoff and his colleagues set up an experiment to decode prairie dog language. They trapped a number of prairie dogs and painted them, so that they'd be able to track them. Then he brought dogs of varying shape, size and color by the prairie dogs, and recorded their reactions. Slobodchikoff and his team also brought humans by the prairie dogs too, and what they found was pretty amazing.

"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.

Slobodchikoff said they were even able to describe abstract shapes like circles, all within one chirp lasting extremely briefly.

"In one 10th of a second, they say 'Tall thin human wearing blue shirt walking slowly across the colony.'"

Slobodchikoff says they can even tell that the same person is wearing a different colored shirt.

"When we do an experiment where the same person walks out into 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 is now working on an animal-to-human language translator, which would convert the sound an animal makes into human language.

"We could potentially have something maybe the size of a cellphone 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.'"

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