Prairie Dog Squeak Equals Human Sentence

I must say that I find it quite incredible that inside the very short squeak of a prairie dog is a complete sentence of the form “Danger, a thin human in a yellow shirt is approaching the colony.”

I had heard several years ago that prairie dogs have different calls for “human” and “human with gun”. I had even heard that they would recognize an individual human (I can’t recognize individual prairie dogs) and, if that human had a gun last time they saw him/her, they would scream “human with gun” even if s/he were not carrying a gun this time.

However, these complete sentences are surprising to me. I generally try not to underestimate non-human animal intelligence. However, it appears that I had once again fallen into that trap in assuming that prairie dogs (basically medium sized ground squirrels) wouldn’t be smart enough to speak in whole sentences and to convey information that seems to be more detailed than really necessary.

They can, for example, distinguish between domestic dogs and coyotes even when the dog is superficially coyote like. What’s the point of that? Are dogs more or less dangerous to prairie dogs? I have no idea. But, they can make the distinction and they do.

All that’s left now is to wonder, what are they chattering about?

If we are any indication, they’re probably just gossiping. About 70% of human speech is typically gossip. Unless prairie dogs are smarter than us, they’re probably just talking about each other behind each others’ backs. I’m just kidding, mostly. Of course, we have no idea what they’re saying. Half the time we have more than enough difficulty decoding our own speech … or have you never had a misunderstanding with anyone?

This is clearly another animal to whom I would grant moral considerability.

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10 Responses to Prairie Dog Squeak Equals Human Sentence

  1. Rodnikov Magilovich says:

    Technically, Prairie Dogs are Richardson’s Ground Squirrels.
    As a lad back in Saskatchewan, I helped exterminate many. They are the main reason for horses, cattle, sheep, goats breaking a leg when they step into the den mouth of these GOPHERS! [then yoiu have to shoot your best saddle horse or best milk cow]
    Since we were not allowed a gun, and the nearby feed lot operator paid ten cents per tail, we used the standard traps, a 5 gallon pail to carry water from the nearest pond and drown the little buggers out! We learned to place the trap upside down over the hole so the water could pour in without triggering the trap, and if the network of holes were greater than the number of traps, we always had a # 9 iron golf club to tee off on the bastards as they left the hole! Gopher eyes when popped out look almost like Blue Berries!
    Anyone who says they can’t tell one gopher from another is not observant. They do have numerous differences in fur color, and other markings like the tip of the tail.
    And in case you or anyone is offended, this pest of the Prairies is responsible for millions of dollars on grain crop damage every year. Hence I have no regrets, and Gopherus obnoxious will never be an endangered species. Go figure!

    • bobbo, the pragmatic existential evangelical anti-theist says:

      TV had a show about crows or bluejays or some bird that could tell which human beings had shoed them away and saved them for attacks later on while leaving other humans alone. I have a hazy recollection they even showed this information being transmitted to other crows who had never seen the offending human. Sounds improbable and I was only watching with my left eye.

      Isn’t this issue all about we are learning what they are talking about?==predators. food sources. pecking order. A veritable Darwin’s Menu.

  2. Well Rodnikov, you can rest assured that your extermination of prairie dogs was no help at all to horses, cattle, sheep, or goats.

    Please remember that the prairies were grazed by horses, bison, and numerous other animals long before humans came on the scene and none of them died out due to the problem of having more than 100 times the current number of prairie dogs. In fact, cows and prairie dogs like to graze together. And, the grasses that have been cropped by the prairie dogs are more nutritious for the cattle.

    So, while I would not condemn you for what you did in your young and stupid days, just as I have forgiven myself for a lot that I did in my young and stupid days, I would strongly request that you stop the propagation of myths that continue to this day as viral memes that destroy innocent prairie dogs and the highly endangered black footed ferrets who depend on them.

    http://www.prairiedoglover.com/facts.htm

    MYTH: Prairie Dogs and Cattle Can’t Co-exist

    FACT: Although prairie dogs do eat some of the same grass that cattle eat, science has proven that the constant digging and clipping of grasses by prairie dogs causes soil turnover that results in changes of the composition of vegetation on the prairie. This improves the nutritional quality of existing grasses and encourages growth of high forage quality forbs. Both cattle and prairie dogs have demonstrated a preference for grazing together, just as bison and prairie dogs have historically preferred each other’s company, contrary to what farmers, ranchers and the livestock industry claim. Scientists have proven that even though there is less vegetation in areas where prairie dogs and bison coexist, grasses that were continually trimmed by prairie dogs were more nutritious and more digestible, and because of prairie dog grazing, there is more live plant growth and higher protein content than in old or dead plant material.

    MYTH: Prairie Dogs Cause Cattle, Bison and Horses To Break Legs

    FACT: Some farmers and ranchers have reported that prairie dog burrows tear up the land and pose a hazard to livestock, which might stumble and break a leg. Such cases appear to occur infrequently, if at all. Other hazards to livestock are much more prevalent, for example: exposure to extreme weather / temperatures, predators, and barbed wire.

  3. The Expulsion Of Gods says:

    Hi all!

    How’s everyone been lately?
    Anyhow, very interesting article about prairie dog…ummm, speech? I had absolutely no idea, Scott! Thanks!
    And, I would seem that I’m in much need to study bluejays as well as crows too. Thanks bobbo

  4. The family that includes jays and crows and ravens is called corvids. It is a family known to be highly intelligent. Watching them in the wild, ravens seem particularly playful. From my reading, crows seem to have the highest degree of tool use. They make hooks for pulling out insects. When they make one that comes out particularly good, they will cache it for later reuse.

    Many members of the parrot family are also known to be highly intelligent. Alex the African Grey is probably the best known.

    http://www.alexfoundation.org/press_release.html

    That said, there’s a story of Bongo Marie and Paco that is my personal favorite bird story.

    https://companionparrotonline.com/Story_Grey.html

    In New Zealand, the Kea, a mountain parrot is especially known for being smart, playful, and mischievous. They like shiny objects, so losing keys to them is common. One guide we had for a day walk told us a story of being 3 days out on an 11 day trek. She was watching keas and having a great time … but forgot to count the keas. It was as if one of them said, “OK, you guys distract her while I go around back and steal the spoon.” Was it really that planned? Who knows? How could we ever know? But, all but one of the keas kept playing while one went around her back and stole her only spoon.

  5. pablotime says:

    So you only grant moral considerability to animals that fit a set of requirements that please you (intelligence)?

    I take it you also feel the same way about people with severe retardation, or is it different simply because disabled people happen to look like you (human)?

    Your morals are puddle-deep, Scott, and I’d have expected more from an atheist and a supposed natural enthusiast.

    Admittedly, educating people to have EQUAL respect for ALL FORMS OF LIFE, regardless of such cosmetic considerations such as their appearance, behaviour or in your case of discrimination, intelligence, is the very hardest lesson to learn for a species as self-centred as humanity, so I’m not surprised that you fall short like almost all others.

    Your need to feel superior (human exceptionalism) is the same drive that spawns Gods, which themselves are no more than fantasies created to make humans feel special in the universe.

    Just when I think I’ve found someone who thinks outside of society’s box, I find that they’ve only discovered the way out of one room, not the whole building.

    Very dissapointing.

  6. pablotime,

    You make some excellent points that I have indeed made before. However, when I find that other species are more intelligent than expected, it goes a long way toward convincing others to get beyond granting moral considerability only to humans.

    As you will see if you look at my older Moral Considerability post, in the photos, I included a poison dart frog.

    Here’s a quote from that post:

    There are a lot of other things to think about in moral considerability. For example, do members of endangered species have greater moral considerability than members of thriving species? Do species have moral considerability or merely individuals? What about non-sentient or not very intelligent species? Is there a sliding scale where perhaps lab chimps get more than lab monkeys and both get more than lab rats and lab mice? What about the trees in a forest? What about the species that depend on them from the very small to the large?

    You can read the full text at the link below and see if you still feel the same way about me. If so, you’re certainly entitled to your opinion.

    https://misanthropicscott.wordpress.com/2007/11/21/moral-considerability-what-does-it-mean-to-whom-does-it-apply/

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