If We Could Talk With the Prairie Dogs, Just Imagine it ...

Dr. Con Slobodchikoff argues we can talk with these language-bearing rodents

Posted May 14, 2017

Prairie dogs are amazing beings. These social rodents are family-living animals who also have evolved an amazing and complex vocal repertoire. A recent essay by Ferris Jabr in the New York Times called "Can Prairie Dogs Talk?" caught my eye and I knew from the get-go that it was about renowned researcher Dr. Con Slobodchikoff's seminal research on Gunnison's prairie dogs and that it was going to raise controversial questions about whether we can talk with prairie dogs or any other nonhuman animals (animals).

I've written about Dr. Slobodchikoff's groundbreaking research and his excellent book called Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals before (please see "Dr. Dolittle To the Rescue: Animals Do Indeed Have Language"), and I'm pleased to see the database on their vocal repertoire growing by leaps and bounds. I'm also pleased to see that we're moving beyond claims that go something like, "Only primates are language-bearing animals," or "Only humans possess language." 

Mr. Jabr's essay is available online, and as I was pondering what to write about it, I reached out to Dr. Slobodchikoff to see if he had the time to answer a few questions. Most fortunately he did, and this is what transpired in our brief interview.

Courtesy of Con Slobodchikoff
Source: Courtesy of Con Slobodchikoff

When did you begin studying Gunnison's prairie dogs and why?

I began studying prairie dogs in the early 1980s. Initially, I was interested in their social behavior. Not much was known about that, specifically why a town was divided into territories which contained varying numbers of prairie dogs. The prevailing thought was that the territories were comprised of social kin groups, or coteries, of related individuals. 

My work, and that of my students, showed that territorial composition varied according to the distribution of food plant resources with a territory. When food plant resources were patchily or sparsely distributed, a territory had to be larger, and more prairie dogs joined a territory to defend its borders, with up to 20 prairie dogs sharing a territory. When food plant resources were mostly uniformly distributed and more concentrated, a territory could be small and contain 2 or 3 prairie dogs.
My former student Jennifer Verdolin and I looked at the relatedness of the animals within territories using DNA markers, and found that in most cases the relatedness was no greater than the background relatedness of the entire colony. So at least in our colonies, unrelated individuals cooperated to defend a territory for the plant resources it contained, contrary to the predictions of kin selection theory. We found that aggression was very low between individuals within a territory, so you could loosely say that a group of amicable friends cooperated in defending a piece of turf.

During the course of the social behavior work, I noticed that prairie dogs had alarm calls for predators. At first, I thought, as was the prevailing wisdom of the time, that the alarm calls were all the same, and were simple expressions of fear, such as us yelling "eek" when seeing something that scares us.

In the early to mid 1980s, a former professor of mine at Berkeley, Peter Marler, visited and suggested that I look into whether prairie dogs alarm calls could be segregated into an "aerial predator" alarm call and a "terrestrial predator" alarm call. He pointed out that California ground squirrels had been found to have such calls, and that perhaps prairie dog had something similar.

I started recording the alarm calls in different contexts, and found that indeed I could separate out "aerial" vs. "terrestrial" alarm calls. But there was a lot of variation within each category of calls, and I started to wonder why. Then I had an insight, that perhaps the calls were not just for broad categories such as "aerial" predators vs. "terrestrial" predators, but were for different species of predators. My students and I recorded alarm calls in response to different predators, and I found that indeed the prairie dogs had different alarm calls for different species of predators, such as separate calls for a coyote, for a human, for a domestic dog, and for a hawk.

But there was still some variation within each predator-specific call, variation that could not be accounted for by individual vocal differences among prairie dogs. Once again, I had an insight that perhaps prairie dogs were describing something of the physical features of each individual predator. I set up a series of experiments, and subsequently found that prairie dogs could incorporate into their calls a description of the color, size, and shape of a predator, as well as the species of predators. 

In human language terms, the species of predator can be considered a noun, and the descriptions can be considered adjectives or adverbs. Also, the rate at which the chirps were produced correlated with the speed of travel of the predator, so that was analogous to a verb in human language.  In effect, a single alarm call was comparable to a human sentence.

Were you surprised by some of your initial results on their incredible repertoire of vocalizations and which ones in particular? 

I would say that I was surprised by each set of findings. At the beginning, I bought into the view that rodents like prairie dogs were relatively simple creatures operating mostly on instinct and could not have such a sophisticated communication system. So every experiment that I did, that showed more and more sophistication, surprised me.

However, one of the most surprising things was that prairie dogs were able to come up with alarm calls for abstract objects that they had never seen before, such as an oval, a triangle, a circle, and a square. This shows a level of abstraction that people did not expect from a ground squirrel.

What was the most striking unexpected discovery?

While most people are amazed at prairie dogs having descriptive terms for size, shape, color, and type of predator, to me the most striking discovery was finding that all of these calls were composed of phonemes, just like human words are composed of phonemes. A phoneme in human language is the smallest unit of sound, and phonemes are assembled into morphemes, or the smallest units of meaning, which are then assembled into words. We found the exact same thing in prairie dog alarm calls: each call was composed of the same phonemes, but they were assembled in different orders, just like the phonemes in human words. The journal where we published this did not like our use of the term "phonemes" so we had to change it to "acoustic structures."

Why do you think there has resistance to the idea that they use words and talk using language and from whom was there the most skepticism?

My best guess is that the resistance to the idea that animals can talk using language is based on trying to keep humans "special" and apart from the rest of the animals. If we humans are the only ones to have language, then there is something special about us that is not shared by the rest of the natural world. That allows us to have dominion over the natural world, rather than be in partnership with the natural world.

Curiously enough, much of the resistance has come from some biologists, linguists, and philosophers, who seem to be particularly wedded to the view that we humans are special. 

Is it speciesism and a "primatocentric bias" that might go something like, "Pee-brained prairie dogs can't possibly have evolved such highly complex and sophisticated communicative capacities."

Despite the recent DNA findings that evolution can be best seen as a tree with many branches, some people still see the evolution of life through the lens of the Aristotelian Scala Naturae, where evolution follows a linear path, and you can arrange on a straight line the "higher" animals and the "lower" animals. Humans, of course, are seen as being at the top. Below humans are the apes, and then the monkeys, and then various "higher" mammals such as elephants, and then the "lower" mammals such as prairie dogs and mice. Below all of that are the insects, and then the worms, and finally the one-celled organisms.

According to this view, we would expect monkeys and apes to have a few elements that are found in human language, and we certainly would not expect animals such as prairie dogs to have any semblance of language. 

This is certainly "speciesism" in that humans are considered to be at the top of the evolutionary scale, and it is also a "primatocentric bias" in that primates are seen as having the most human qualities.

What are some of your current projects?

My current project is to try to develop a device that would allow us to talk to dogs. In my experience, there is a profound lack of communication between dogs and many people, leading to perceived behavioral problems and ultimately many dogs ending up in shelters, where they are euthanized. In the United States, some 2-4 million dogs are euthanized each year. If we had some way that people could communicate with their dogs and solve behavioral problems before the dogs ended up in shelters, we could save the lives of countless dogs.

When I was working with prairie dogs, a computer science colleague and I developed a program based on Artificial Intelligence technology that could analyze the calls of prairie dogs and tell us what these calls mean. I think that we now have the capability to use artificial intelligence technology and machine learning to do something similar with dog communication signals.  A device such as I envision would have to integrate a dictionary of the vocalizations of dogs with a dictionary of body postures, and from that, tell a person what a dog is trying to communicate to them.

As I have said in my book, Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, I think that many animals have language, and we just have overlooked all of the evidence pointing in that direction.  If we can build a dog-language-translator, the next steps might be to apply the same technology to talk to many other animals as well. 

My hope is that this will lead to a better world, both for us and for the rest of the animals. I see us all as partners in the Natural World, and if we can talk to the animals, perhaps it might help people appreciate and value animals more than they do now.

Thank you, Con. I remember talking with you decades ago about this compelling research, and I agree with your views. I hope that people will open their eyes to the fascinating cognitive and emotional worlds of a wide range of animals and move away from speciesism that ignores the data we are collecting from comparative ethological research.

Keeping an open mind about the evolution of language and who has it, who might have it, and who doesn't, surely is the way to move into the future. Closing the door will only result in the same old same old, and the expanding database deserves to be scrutinized more objectively. 

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. Marc's homepage is marcbekoff.com.

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