Prairie Dog Linguistics

My colleague Tania Soussan has a delightful story in this morning’s paper about the question of whether prairie dogs have language:

Some of those words or calls were created by the prairie dogs when they saw something for the first time. Four prairie dogs in Slobodchikoff’s lab were shown a great-horned owl and European ferret, two animals they had likely not seen before, if only because the owls are mostly nocturnal and this kind of ferret is foreign. The prairie dogs independently came up with the same new calls.

In the field, black plywood cutouts showing the silhouette of a coyote, a skunk and an oval shape were randomly run along a wire through the prairie dog colony.

“There are no black ovals running around out there and yet they all had the same word for black oval,” Slobodchikoff said.

He guesses the prairie dogs are genetically programmed with some vocabulary and the ability to describe things.