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Here comes a tall, thin, yellow human!
June 2, 2013 5:45 AM   Subscribe

After more than 25 years of studying the calls of prairie dog in the field, one researcher managed to decode just what these animals are saying. And the results show that prairie dogs aren't only extremely effective communicators, they also pay close attention to detail.
posted by cthuljew (33 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite

 


Thanks, that is fascinating. Any day that starts with a little prairie dog chat has got to be a good day.
posted by madamjujujive at 6:08 AM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


If it hasn't been done yet I think this would make a great premise for a science fiction novel: aliens recording and playing back human "alarm calls" to observe the response and decode human language.

Besides that, really interesting post, thanks.
posted by XMLicious at 6:54 AM on June 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


Love that video. The jump-yips bowled me over laughing. Research + language + fluffy meerkats falling over with joy cannot be anything but excellent.
posted by fraula at 7:04 AM on June 2, 2013


Watch your dry bones in the prairie dog town.
posted by tommyD at 7:15 AM on June 2, 2013


I'm sorry, but no matter how legitimate a given video is, someone saying "Hello, my name is Con Slobodchikoff" sounds too much like an Arrested Development character for me to completely trust it.
posted by shmegegge at 7:17 AM on June 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


Fabulous. This post is also very coincidental with my having seen an actual prairie dog, earlier today, at a school that I played a gig at (annual community event) in Sendai city, Japan. Surely the first actual prairie dog I've seen in at least... 25 years? 30? More?

Thanks for the post!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:23 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed this. It was interesting and I found it hilarious that they have alarm calls not only for coyotes but menacing shapes like squares and ovals.
posted by custardfairy at 7:24 AM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I found it hilarious that they have alarm calls not only for coyotes but menacing shapes like squares and ovals.

Hey, man, any beatnik will tell you that squares are a drag.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:26 AM on June 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


After more than 25 years of studying the calls of prairie dog in the field

Well, where else would you expect to find them?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:28 AM on June 2, 2013 [8 favorites]


Are you kidding me??? That's really cool!

Also: I want to pet one.
posted by michellenoel at 7:37 AM on June 2, 2013


How would they describe human walking a coyote holding a red tailed hawk in its mouth besides "OHMYGODSENSORYOVERLOAD!"
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:41 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is awesome!

Here is a slightly less scientifically explained video about monkey vocalizations in the forest I work, which shows that monkeys do something similar. Unfortunately, it's difficult to experimentally manipulate primate communities to the same degree as it is to experiment on prairie dogs, but linguistic complexity as measured through alarm calls is a really cool avenue of research!
posted by ChuraChura at 8:03 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Funny, but also a great question, Nanukthedog! If a human walking a dog comes along, how do they relay the info? "Human" signal, followed by "dog" signal? Or vice versa? Or something that puts all the info together, like human/dog, tall/medium, blue/yellow?

So fascinating; thanks, cthuljew!
posted by taz at 8:17 AM on June 2, 2013


I think they read right to left, so it would be dog trailed by human on a rope.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:31 AM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


fleas on prairie dogs have been known to carry the plague.. just something to consider before cultivating that desire to go pet one.
posted by edgeways at 8:44 AM on June 2, 2013


I read the book this guy wrote about this, "Chasing Doctor Dolittle." It was a very interesting read, though a bit overly rosy/hopeful for my taste (and being a pop-sci book, kind of obviously written to make his theory sound more inevitable and obvious than I suspect it might be.) Still, it was fun, and I, for one, await our pet decoders with great anticipation.
posted by Scattercat at 9:07 AM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


God, I love science!! This is super cool. Tx for the post.
posted by jfwlucy at 9:46 AM on June 2, 2013


This is awesome! I'm also getting a major Watership Down vibe from this. Who knows what epic stories the prairie dogs are telling each other?

Also... so cute!
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 10:07 AM on June 2, 2013


The clip starting at 7:05 warmed the cockles of my heart a little:

Hurray! It's a wonderful day!

I think that if there were a video of this guy explaining prairie dog communication to Mr. Rogers, it would have the power to stop wars.
posted by Tsuga at 10:12 AM on June 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Okay, that's pretty neat. "HELLO PRAIRIE DOGS! HUMANS ARE HERE!"
posted by rmd1023 at 10:12 AM on June 2, 2013


That was incredible. Every time I see a video like this, I think that I would have been so happy to have a career studying animal behavior. What a fun way to spend the day. Also, what an earworm this guy has for a name. Con Slobodchikoff Con Slobodchikoff Con Slobodchikoff . . .
posted by HotToddy at 10:13 AM on June 2, 2013


aliens recording and playing back human "alarm calls" to observe the response and decode human language.

I think this explains Fox News.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:20 AM on June 2, 2013 [13 favorites]


They look so confused when he plays back warnings: "Hey, who's that talking?" I wonder if they can also distinguish individual prairie dog voices? If so, they must be weirded out to hear their own and their friends conversations played back.

I'm tempted to order his book but since I have never mastered French or Spanish, I might be better continuing with those before I undertake prairie dog conversation 101.
posted by madamjujujive at 10:40 AM on June 2, 2013


I had never before heard prairie dogs referred to as "America's Meerkats" and I find that both charming and hilarious. America's Meerkats, heh.
posted by maryr at 12:08 PM on June 2, 2013


I realized recently that I'm beginning to be able to distinguish between the different alarm calls made by the starlings that nest in our eaves - the one they make when a hawk is around is different from the one they make about a local raven lurking nearby.
posted by rtha at 12:29 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now I want to know if the prairie dogs think I'm fat.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 12:44 PM on June 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


This looks like a retread of a fairly old story: Sally Thomason at Language Log was very sceptical of the linguistic claims - see PrairieDogSpeak, July 01, 2006.
posted by raygirvan at 2:14 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


This stuff is great! And, dammit, don't blame the prairie dogs for the plague, blame the damn fleas! Awesome video and research are awesome!
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 6:37 PM on June 2, 2013


This is incredibly interesting and unbelievable. Meaning, I'm not sure whether or not I actually believe it. Is there anyone on Metafilter whose research is related to this who could comment on the quality of the actual data? How do they know that there are size and color descriptors in the alarm call? It seems like it would be difficult to do an experiment to determine that.

I really like the idea of prairie dogs having such sophisticated communication, I just don't understand the science. Anyway, thanks for a very cool post.
posted by medusa at 7:20 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow, based on this small glimpse, prairie dogs are fascinating. (I.e., during the course of the video I texted my husband three or four times along the lines of OMG PRAIRIE DOGS ARE SO COOL! and THEY HAVE DIALECTS). Thanks for posting this!
posted by Lexica at 9:36 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


How do they know that there are size and color descriptors in the alarm call? It seems like it would be difficult to do an experiment to determine that.

Colour and size wouldn't be impossible to distinguish, once the researchers had established that the calls contained specific sub-sounds within them. Like the video described, you would test for colour by sending the same human out into the colony wearing a different coloured shirt each time - and the differences between the calls would correlate to colour. You could test for size by sending two different sized humans out one after the other who were both wearing the same colour.

It'd be much the same as any experiment. Change only one thing at a time and keep everything else as constant as possible, and it's reasonable to conclude that there's a correlation between the variable you're changing and the effect you observe.

What I'd love to know is if they've observed a similarity in calls between a large yellow dog and a similar-sized human in a yellow shirt - or similar effects that would get them closer to being able to identify the 'words' that go to make up the calls. Being able to translate calls is pretty amazing, but being able to reconstruct new calls out of known vocabulary in ways that the prariedogs would be able to understand us is beyond awesome.
posted by talitha_kumi at 5:54 AM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


If so, they must be weirded out to hear their own and their friends conversations played back.

They probably thought: "Is that what I really sound like? That can't be what I really sound like. Is it?"
posted by drezdn at 3:25 PM on June 4, 2013


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