What do prairie dogs have words for?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Prairie dogs may have the most extensive vocabulary of any animal other than humans. They can actually distinguish, linguistically, between a short human in a blue shirt and a tall human in a yellow shirt. Find out what prairie dogs talk about, and whether or not they like the color of your shirt.

Since prairie dogs call to each other to sound the alarm across large colonies, and since they have many different kinds of threats, they benefit if they make their calls specific. And they have made their calls very specific indeed. Prairie dogs have developed an extensive vocabulary which they use to warn others about what exact dangers they face. Professor Con Slobodchikov sat out in fields, listening to the nattering of prairie dogs as they went about their daily business of freaking out at the approach of pretty much everything. After separating out the tones of each of their cries, he was surprised to find that the calls were clearly different. They had calls for different things that had preyed on prairie dogs for thousands of years, like the difference between humans, coyotes, hawks, and dogs. When he played the calls back to the dogs, they launched into the escape plans that they used for each of those specific animals - even though the animals themselves weren't present. They were clearly imparting information with their calls.

What was strange was, when it came to humans, there were a lot of different calls. And so Slobodchikov got lab assistants in the same basic outfits, but with blue, yellow, green, and grey shirts, to wander through the prairie dog village whenever they pleased. (Prairie dogs cannot see red.) Immediately, the dogs came up with different calls that described the different colored shirts, as well as different sizes, height and width, of humans. So whenever one of them started 'chee-ing,' it could be translated as, "Everyone down! Here comes that big skinny asshole of a human in yellow again. We were just eating that grass and you know he's going to step on it!" (Actually, the 'he' isn't part of the vocabulary. Prairie dog language doesn't make distinctions, linguistically, between men and women. Whether that makes it better or worse than English, which does make such distinctions, is up for debate.)


The prairie dogs also came up with different cries for at least two different abstract shapes that flew above them. The researchers set up boxes on either side of the prairie dog village, with lines threading between the boxes. On the lines they strung circles, squares, and triangles. The prairie dogs could distinguish between the triangles and other things, but not the square and the circle. Researchers believe that triangles, in prairie dog language, was translated as 'hawk!' and square or circle was translated as, 'That thing!' Prairie dogs from different states even have different dialects and accents.

Even though they don't know some shapes, these prairie dogs have one of the most sophisticated naming systems in the animal world. And, to answer the question posed in the intro to this post, they never like your shirt.


Top Image: Aaron Siriila

Via NPR and Indiana.edu.