Which Of These North American Mammals Has A Sophisticated Language System?
Answer: Prairie Dogs
When you think of sophisticated language in non-humans, you probably think about dolphins (which are known to use names (signature whistles) for each other and recognize those names over time and distance) or perhaps different primate groups (which communicate with various advanced calls). What you probably don’t think of is prairie dogs, the once wildly abundant rodent that is found all across the grasslands of North America.
Recent research, however, indicates that prairie dog calls, which were long believed to just be simple barks and chirps intended to sound a general alarm, are actually a language system that can communicate a high degree of detail about what is going on in the prairie dog community. How high of a degree of detail? Researchers studying prairie dogs have observed prairie dogs using specific calls for coyotes and wild dogs, unarmed men and armed men, and can even indicate if a predator is on the ground or in the air. Further, the calls aren’t simply “hawk! hawk! hawk!” or the like, but are actually strung together in a rudimentary syntax that is more akin to “hawk! hawk! from the north! from the north!”; the prairie dogs can communicate not just what the threat is, but what direction it is coming from and at what speed.
Interestingly, the prairie dogs’ very vocal nature doesn’t increase the risk of any individual prairie dog getting nabbed: the way prairie dogs project their voices has an almost ventriloquist-like effect and when multiple prairie dogs are repeating the call, it becomes nearly impossible to use your ear to narrow down the location of the animals.
Image courtesy of Curtis J. Carley/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.