Look Who's Talking
Next Time You See A Prairie Dog, Ask About The Wife And Kids
By Leo Banks
July 21, 1997: CON SLOBODCHIKOFF is a soft-spoken, Berkeley-educated scientist with a shock of silver hair and a stout backbone. He needs the latter to endure the raised eyebrows of colleagues who can't bring themselves to accept the conclusion Slobodchikoff has reached through 10 years of painstaking research--prairie dogs can talk.
Yes, talk. As in tell family and friends of approaching predators, identify the predator, and in the case of humans, describe the clothing and even whether he or she is carrying a gun.
In the world of this animal behaviorist, born to Russian parents, now a professor at Northern Arizona University, prairie dogs are nothing like the rapidly procreating rangeland critters of popular image. He describes them as highly intelligent and capable of conveying complex information through a vocal language more sophisticated than that of any animal ever studied.
For years scientists thought animals could only give calls about their emotions, such as anger or fear. But Slobodchikoff says the more he analyzed the communication of prairie dogs, the more complicated the story got. "The Rosetta Stone of this is the prairie dog's alarm call," he says.
Slobodchikoff gathers data by sitting inside a tower on the edge of a prairie dog colony in the pine forests outside Flagstaff. The wood-frame structure is covered in burlap for concealment. Inside, he operates a directional microphone, tape recorder and video camera.
When a predator approaches, prairie dogs make a sound like a bird chirping, and Slobodchikoff records it. Back in the lab, he runs the tape through a computer program that digitizes it, and breaks it down into frequency and time. Changes in frequency and time are measured, and this data re-entered into the computer and analyzed to see if differences exist between predators.
They do. The alarm call for an approaching hawk, for instance, is different from that of a coyote, which is different from that of human.
In one experiment, Slobodchikoff had a gun-toting hunter appear in a prairie dog colony. The call the dogs gave for that person was distinct from the call they gave for another who appeared without a gun. For the next two months, the first hunter returned periodically, but without a gun. The prairie dogs remembered him as a potential threat and always gave the same call as when he had gun.
The only animal with comparable language ability is the vervet monkey of Kenya. It has calls for three predators, eagle, leopard and snake. Slobodchikoff's research has identified prairie dog calls for four predators--human, hawk, coyote and domestic dog. Badgers also prey on prairie dogs, but he has been unable to distinguish an alarm call for badgers.
Counting its predator words, and numerous adjectives to modify them by color, shape, size and more, Slobodchikoff places the numbers of words prairie dogs can speak in the hundreds.
They also have a kind of grammar--they can speed up or slow down their talking depending on whether the predator is running or walking through their colony. Slobodchikoff calls it a grammar because it follows the basic rules of how you combine sounds, the same way humans do.
And prairie dogs have varying dialects. Every colony pronounces words in a slightly different way, but dogs within the same species can communicate. In other words, a Gunnison Prairie Dog from Colorado could chat with a Gunnison Prairie Dog from Utah.
"My interest is in finding out if other animals can do this, too," he says. "Scientists haven't really thought to look because they just expected that animals couldn't talk."
But it's tough to get funding. A two-pound varmint talking to other two-pound varmints? It sounds too far out. Except to ordinary folks. Non-scientists are fascinated to learn that animals can talk, and don't think it's strange at all. In fact, they're surprised that more researchers aren't studying the question. Scientists are a much harder sell.
"I'd say 25 percent think my findings are interesting," says Slobodchikoff. "And 75 percent are either agnostic or outright disbelievers. When I first presented my research, colleagues told me I must've made a mistake."
ANOTHER OBSTACLE is overcoming anti-prairie dog sentiment. Hunters delight in finding them at the end of their gunsights, various government agencies are more than happy to tell you how to poison them, and ranchers complain that they carry bubonic plague. They also leave holes in the ground that can trip up horses, and they're worse than cows at stripping landscape of vegetation.
"They're a pain in the neck," says C.B. "Doc" Lane, spokesman for the Arizona Cattleman's Association. "They can do enormous damage to a field. They build entire prairie dog towns that can be 10 acres in size."
"If you drive from Denver to Boulder, in the Douglas County area, you'll see large plots of land with no forage at all," says Reeves Brown, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. "They've been stripped clean and people think it's from horses and cows. But it's prairie dogs."
Brown recommends a little poison barley at the edge of the colony and a change in attitude: 'If we called them prairie rats, it'd be hard to have much sympathy for them."
Barley is only one way to skin a pest. The University of Arizona's agricultural agent in Coconino County, Slobodchikoff's home, hands out literature to anyone interested in getting rid of prairie dogs. Tips include using strychnine, toxic gas, trapping, shotgunning and pumping carbon monoxide into their burrows.
The latter is accomplished by dropping a cartridge inside, or running exhaust from a car or truck into the hole. "Actually a lawn mower would do the trick," says agent Tom DeGomez, who says two cases of plague in humans in Coconino County have been linked to prairie dogs.
He tells people the long-term solution is to plant trees. "They don't like trees because they like to pop their heads up and look around to see who's coming. They're paranoid," says DeGomez.
Paranoid? Hard to understand why. Navajos and Hopis have only been hunting them with spears and arrows for hundreds of years, and they even have traditional recipes for baked prairie dog. It's considered a delicacy.
"They're everybody's lunch," says Slobodchikoff. "Here's an animal people think of as simplistic vermin, yet it has a complex cognitive brain that can form concepts and remember things for long periods. I think prairie dogs have a lot to teach us."
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