Can Prairie Dogs Actually Talk About Humans?

All too often, humans seem to think that planet Earth is their exclusive playground. Whether we're studying curious creatures or admiring them in zoos, the implication seems to be that we think we rule the roost. The fact is, though, we're just another animal. Though no other species has quite mastered the arts of songwriting, putting ships in bottles, or using a toilet the way we have, the individual brilliance of our fellow creatures needs to be celebrated too.

When it comes to sophisticated speech, for instance, we may think that we stand alone. According to Ethnologue, there are 7,151 different living languages. How many of them are spoken by humans? Well, 7,151. At the same time, however, other animals are capable of remarkably advanced communication too. The Gorilla Foundation, for instance, claims that Koko the gorilla could converse using over 1,000 words and phrases of sign language (via National Geographic).

You may not think of prairie dogs as the most sparkling conversationalists, but their communicative capacities are so great that it seems they even talk about us.

Prairie dogs warn each other of lurking dangers, in great detail

It would be easy to underestimate these cute little fuzzballs. After all, as Britannica states, they tend to weigh no more than 3.7 pounds (1.7kg). Tiny and adorable they may be, they're also brilliant engineers, capable of making complex colony homes. One such Texan colony even covered 25,000 miles.

In short, it's vital not to underestimate the brilliance of prairie dogs. Especially not to their faces, it seems, because these clever critters are capable of advanced communication too. According to The New York Times Magazine, "prairie-dog alarm calls are the vocal equivalent of wartime telegrams: concise, abrupt, stripped to essentials." 

There's no time for small talk in prairie dog society. When you're fluffy and eminently edible, there are more pressing matters to attend to than discussing the weather with a neighbor over your backyard fence. These creatures are constantly alert, never stray far from safety, and communicate with their fellows in quick, shrill vocalizations, which are largely warnings of potential threats.

Naturally, humans fit into that category, and it seems that prairie dogs do speak about us in great detail.

If you change your t-shirt, a prairie dog will notice

In an episode of "Prairie Dogs: America's Meerkats," (via prairiedogchatter on YouTube), Northern Arizona University's Dr. Con Slobodchikoff (who has studied the vocalization of the Gunnisson's prairie dog for three decades) explains that the animals give high-pitched squeaks he calls Alarm Calls when danger is sensed. In response, the prairie dogs in the vicinity will act to save themselves.

The fascinating thing about these calls is that each prairie dog species has a distinct call. Slobodchikoff went on to say (via YouTube) that an Alarm Call in response to a pet dog will be different to one in response to a coyote, for example, and that through analysis and observation, the team was able to see just how sophisticated these calls can be when humans enter the equation.

Incredibly, prairie dogs can describe the individual animal they have spotted, and in the episode, Slobodchikoff explains just how well they can do so: "A human Alarm Call contains information not only about the intruder being a human, but also... about the size, shape and color of clothes that the human is wearing." During the course of their work, he said, the same researcher would pass the colony at different times, wearing different colored t-shirts, and the calls in response would subtly differ to reflect this.

So if you didn't know that prairie dogs were capable of subtly gossiping about your fashion sense before, you do now.