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 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.
This animal behaviorist, a professor at Northern Arizona University, says prairie dogs are nothing like the procreating range-land 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 with burlap for concealment. Inside, he operates a directional microphone, tape recorder and video camera.
When a predator comes, prairie dogs make a sound like a bird chirping, and Slobodchikoff records it. He then runs the tape through a computer program that digitizes it and breaks it down into frequency and tune. Changes in frequency and time are measured, and this data is 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.
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 to 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 a gun.
The only animal with comparable language ability is the Vervet monkey of Kenya. It has calls for three predators: eagles, leopards and snakes. Slobodchikoff’s research has identified prairie dog calls for four predators: humans, hawks, coyotes and domestic dogs. Badgers also prey on prairie dogs, but he has been unable to distinguish an alarm call for badgers.
Counting the prairie dogs’ predator words, and numerous adjectives to modify them by color, shape and size, Slobodchikoff places their vocabulary in the hundreds. And prairie dogs have varying dialects. Every colony pronounces words in a slightly different way, but all dogs within the same species can communicate.
“My interest is in finding out if other animals can do this,” 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 2-pound varmint talking to other 2-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. Scientists are a much harder sell.
“I’d say 25% think my findings are interesting,” says Slobodchikoff. “And 75% are either agnostic or outright disbelievers.”
Another obstacle is overcoming anti-prairie dog sentiment. Hunters delight in finding them at the end of their gun sights 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.
“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 Assn. “They’ve been stripped clean and people think it’s from horses and cows. But it’s prairie dogs.”
Brown recommends 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.
Agent Tom DeGomez 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.”