Prairie Dogs Can Talk, Says Scientist

What would happen if we discovered another intelligent species? According to Con Slobodchikoff, we already have; prairie dogs can talk using a language more sophisticated than any other animal ever studied. Would it alter the manner in which we could use the land occupied by the individuals of that species? Science fiction writer H. Beam Piper wrote a great novel exploring the topic.


(Prairie Dog Contemplates His Domain)

Most people listening to prairie dog chatter describes it as a series of yips, high-pitched barks or eeks. However, according to Dr. Slobodchikoff, Professor of Biology at Northern Arizona University, prairie dogs are capable of referential communication. They have:

  • different alarm calls for different species of predators
  • different escape behaviors for different species of predators
  • transmission of semantic information, in that playbacks of alarm calls in the absence of predators lead to escape behaviors that are appropriate to the kind of predator who elicited the alarm calls
  • alarm calls containing descriptive information about the general size, color, and speed of travel of the predator.
Prairie dogs are able to use adjectives to differentiate objects, including human beings. For example, they can describe the color of clothes on a human and whether he is tall or short. They can also describe how fast a man is moving or whether he is carrying a gun. And there’s evidence that the animals can remember that specific person for up to two months.

Prairie dog colonies appear to have unique dialects, much like New Yorkers sound different from Southerners. But researchers believe the basic language is the same. That is, a prairie dog from Arizona could talk to a prairie dog from New Mexico. And that's comforting.

In his marvelous 1962 novel Little Fuzzy, science fiction author H. Beam Piper explores a newly-discovered planet called Zarathustra. A sunstone prospector named Jack Holloway discovers an interesting new species of animal on the planet - he calls them "little fuzzies":

...something inside the drawer said Yeeeeek! in a startled voice.

He turned quickly, to see two wide eyes staring up at him out of a ball of golden fur. Whatever it was, it had a round head and big ears and a vaguely humanoid face with a little snub nose. It was sitting on its haunches, and int that position it was about a foot high...


(From The Fuzzy Papers)

The novel closely examines a variety of ways to distinguish an intelligent, sapient species from animals. It's particularly important on Zarathustra, because the planet is owned by a corporation that holds its charter by virture of the (presumed) fact that the planet has no native intelligent species. This is a great book, well worth reading.


(Prairie Dog Rapture by Anthony Falbo)

Find out more about prairie dogs at the Prairie Dog Information site.

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