An Explorer’s Surprise: Prairie Dogs Talk?

Praire DogsPrairie dogs – a larger rodent than the little-respected gopher is one smart creature. Researchers have discovered prairie dogs have a vocabulary of 100 different sounds!

Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University found prairie dogs distinguish between predators like coyotes or hawks or humans with different sounds. They can also describe speed, color or size. So they don’t just say watch out for the Homo sapiens over there. Their alarm call would be different for the tall human wearing white versus the short human in yellow. Who knew these creatures, often regarded as pests by some, have the linguistic prowess of ravens or apes?

I suggested the communicative rodent might be an under-utilized tourism resource at a speech to the Nebraska’s Agri/Ecotourism conference and that if Meerkat Manor celebrated meerkats why couldn’t a reinventer in Nebraska develop Prairie Dog Ponderosa? I was delighted when Tricia Beem of Grand Island Convention and Visitor Bureau described her Bugling, Booming, and Barking tour that included viewing of sandhill cranes, prairie-chickens and Black-tailed prairie dogs.

With interpretation of their social behavior and communication, I think these prairie sentinels could become a great addition to a Nebraska holiday or perhaps create destination awareness through social media. Who hasn’t watched an amateur voice over of a cat or bird or dog on YouTube and seen it shared thousands or millions of times? Perhaps a Rosetta Stone course in Prairie-dogese is just around the corner!

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