Professor Con Slobodchikoff has discovered that the calls prairie dogs make can be clustered into different groups. Their call sounds like ‘chee chee chee chee’, according to the professor. From the NPR article:
Slobodchikoff and his students went out into the prairie dog villages, hid behind bushes, and stuck out their microphones whenever a human, or a dog, or a coyote, or a hawk passed through. They recorded calls that the prairie dogs made in response to different predators. Then he took his recordings to a lab and used a computer program to analyze the sounds. Any given sound is actually made up of different frequencies and overtone layers on top of one another. Slobodchikoff’s computer measured those frequencies and separated out all the component tones and overtones.
What Slobodchikoff discovered was that the calls clustered into different groups, and each cluster had its own signature set of frequencies and tones. Prairie dogs, in other words, don’t just have a call for “danger” — they have one call for “human,” another for “hawk” and a third for “coyote.” They can even differentiate between coyotes and domesticated dogs.
Slobodchikoff can now tell the difference between these different calls using just his ears, no computer needed. But the sophistication of prairie dog “chees” goes even deeper than he initially suspected.
Through further experiments, Slobodchikoff and his group found that prairie dogs can seemingly describe predators – for example “the short human in a yellow shirt”. And they can also tell the difference between some shapes. The experiment have been repeated with other groups of prairie dogs, although some researchers still question the notion the dogs are ‘describing’. Sadly for those of you who now want to get out and communicate with the prairie dogs, that will remain a dream – Slobodchikoff says much of their ‘chatter’ is inaccessible.