If you have ever felt a language barrier between you and your dog, you are not alone. But even when we’re struggling to figure out what our pets are trying to tell us, the humble black-tailed prairie dog can hold the answers.
Kon Slobodchikov has spent his career studying the intricacies of communication with a prairie dog.
In an interview with the Morning Edition last week, the Arizona-based biologist and author said the study led to a better understanding of other animals’ communication systems.
“After a series of experiments, we found that prairie dogs have a very complex communication system, which is convenient for me to call language,” said Slobodchikov.
“They have all the features that linguists say you have to find in an animal communication system to call it a language.”
Prairie dogs capable of descriptive language
During decades of research, Slobodchikov and his team found that prairie dogs were able to describe the physical characteristics of predators through their alarms. With a tweet, the prairie dog is able to communicate people’s size, shape, speed and even clothing.
“We found that prairie dogs can not only describe the species of predators that approach, such as a coyote, a human or a hawk, but can also describe the physical characteristics of a predator,” Slobodchikov said.
Jennifer Verdolin, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, studied prairie dogs with Slobodchikov. Her field of experience is in animal personalities and she says that the body language of a prairie dog reveals a lot of information about their social networks.
Prairie dogs are involved in a particularly unique form of communication: kissing.
Verdolin says researchers aren’t entirely sure what prairie dogs communicate with kisses, but there are several theories.
“A kiss tells you a lot,” Verdolin said. “It tells you what you ate recently. You can often see young people [prairie dogs] pulling an adult who has food in his mouth and putting his face in his mouth. So maybe they’re trying to feel what I’m eating here? What should I eat? “
There is a lot of information that prairie dogs potentially get from kissing, including:
- Determining which colony an animal is from.
- Obtaining hormonal information about a possible partner.
- Testing the strength of competitors.
- Social commitment.
Prairie dog colonies show evidence of different cultures
“We also know that they have dialects,” Verdolin said. “There are so many geographical variations, similar to human language, and prairie dogs that live farther away have more differences in their communication style.
The idea is that we have a device that you can point at a dog, and the device analyzes the dog’s body language and voice signals and says, “I’m hungry or please let me go, I have to pee or you’re scared of me,” or something in this sense.– Kon Slobodchikov, a researcher of potential technologies from Arizona
Verdolin says the existence of different styles of communication implies different cultures among different colonies of prairie dogs.
“More socially complex organisms are more likely to have a culture,” Verdolin said. “Their communication is just one element of other parts of their behavior that can vary from place to place. And that’s what we think of as culture.”
Morning edition – Sask10:35Study of communication with prairie dogs, leading to a better understanding of animal language
Lobodchikoff’s work with black-tailed prairie dogs made him wonder if other animals had complex communication systems.
After researching the possibilities of other animal language systems, Slobodchikov wrote a book on the subject, Persecution of Dr. Doolittlewhich was published in 2012
“I have found that we have a huge number of articles in the scientific literature that point to or suggest that other animals do have their own languages,” Slobodchikov said. “So I think the opportunity is huge.”
A decade later, Slobodchikov is working on a new venture in animal language research: translation technology. He is the CEO of Zoolingua, a startup working on animal language translation technology, both verbal and somatic.
The purpose of this technology is to translate the language of pets, especially dogs.
The idea is that we have a device that you can point at a dog, and the device analyzes the dog’s body language and voice signals and says, “I’m hungry or please let me go, I have to pee or you’re scaring me,” or something. in this sense, “Slobodchikov said.
Verdolin believes that understanding the different personalities of animals is the key to understanding animal communication systems.
“In fact, you need to pay attention to who your dog is, just as you would to who your friend or child is and what his or her individual needs are,” Verdolin said. “And then you work within that.”