How Would a Prairie Dog Describe You? Thin? Short? Just Ask One

(John Van Os/The Image Bank/Getty Images)

Dr. Doolittle computers talking to prairie dogs and dolphins turn up astonishing complexity of thought - but is it like ours?

Nature's Edge Notebook #14       

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

Computers able to detect and analyze micro-vibrations and tones that are out of reach to the human ear are beginning to reveal remarkably sophisticated "languages" in a range of animals… including the scrappy little American Prairie Dog.

They are also poised to begin what scientists hope will be complex 2-way "verbal" - or at least "vocal" - communication with the large-brained wild dolphins off the coast of Florida…

- Something like the "conversation" we see a computer starting up with the space aliens in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounter of The Third Kind."

Noam Chomsky, MIT's world-renowned linguistic philosopher, tells ABC News he'll be surprised if such computerized "conversations" reveal any animal to have the sort of "boundless" creativity of imaginative language that has been found for sure so far only in humans.

Chomsky say he doesn't see any evidence of this boundlessly creative capacity even in Neanderthals, and suspects it may have resulted in some sort of mutation that appeared in us - Homo Sapiens - between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago that rewired the brain to make it capable of far greater flexibility and creativity in its neural computations.

…But he is also one among the thousands of ranking scientists and other experts around the world who will be watching closely whatever such computerized communications with other species may reveal about language capacities and thinking in all sorts of animals.

In fact, the whole field of animal communication is going through such rapid expansion, it's enough to make you wonder if we won't soon be able to download translation apps into our smart phones on a rainy day so that we can discuss with, say, our pet terrier or Havanese (a breed of Bichon from Havana) over morning Cheerios and Kibbles whether to go to the park or stay in and have that soup bone you've been saving for it in the freezer.

Human: "If we go to the park, your paws will get all wet and muddy and I'll have to clean them afterwards … and you know how you hate that."

Havanese: "Oh Pleeeze! Pleeeze pleeeze pleeze! Maybe that really cute Bijon Frise will be there! The Bichon with the white white white ears! Yes! And his nose smells so weird - nice weird, but weird. Pleeeeeeze! Awww. And you don't have to clean my paws. No no no no no no no.   Pleeeze can we go? … Soup bone? You've got a soup bone?"

Maybe we'd soon come to wish they'd never invented these dog-translator apps. It used to be so simple … when, empowered by the very lack of communication, we could call the shots without so much agonizing reflection. And it was a mistake ever to tell that dog about the soup bone.

Whether such human-like 2-way communication with our pets can ever materialize is not clear yet … and there are millions of pet owners who would probably tell you they've already got such an understanding they wouldn't need such an app - or want to spoil things the way they are now.

Chomsky, and scientists who work directly with animals, point out that a danger in many experiments studying communication with animals is the natural but sentimental temptation to study animals as compared to - or only as compared to - humans.

Each animal must be approached, these experts point out, with full awareness of what the species is physically designed to be capable of and to need for survival - a principle that is one of the basics of what is sometimes called "biolinguistics."

- And, as Chomsky and many others point out, many animals, if not most or even all, can do various specific things far better than humans - swim, sniff, see, compute, remember, hide, reproduce, sing, run and surely think in various ways and complexities that don't pertain to whatever tactics our human species has evolved for our survival, but do pertain to what each of them needs for life.

Yet there are, of course, many inter-species overlaps and common experiences.

Consider the lowly American prairie dog - and the surprising way a scientist at the University of Northern Arizona has considered it for the past 30 years.

Professor Emeritus Con Slobodchikoff (sla-BAW-tchi-koff) has slowly but surely astonished the scientific world with what his data have piled up to prove the prairies' "Barking Squirrels" capable of communicating - as he explains and shows in his short video below.

(Their very name comes from their vocalizations. Prairie dogs are a form of ground squirrel, highly social and living in "villages" of many burrows, from near the entrances of which, early European explorers noticed, they would make squawk-like calls … that led to the nick name "Barking Squirrel" … thence Prairie Dog. Their "villages" of burrows were dubbed "dog towns.")

'America's Meerkats'

They also stand up straight in little groups and look around, not unlike the meerkats of southern Africa in the popular natural history TV series - (though meerkats are not a kind of squirrel but of the mongoose family.)

But any "cuteness factor" in the prairie dogs - and there's little escaping it, they are awful darned cute - may be quickly overshadowed by the impressive complexity and flexibility of the language with which they try to protect themselves and their way of life in a brutal natural world - a world whose great dangers for them now include the humans. (See Supplemental Video at the end of this article.)

His video clearly shows the exactitude with which computers can now zero in on animal "vocabularies" … and explains their methods for translating them into human words.

In an email, he told us that he's helping to show that "humans and animals are not as far apart as we once thought, in terms of both language and intelligence."

(He sent this video link and some comments, all in response to our Notebook series on animal intelligence.)

Slobodchikoff told ABC News: "While many people still expect that primates, whales and dolphins will prove to have the most sophisticated animal languages… [and he doesn't deny that they may] here is a YouTube video showing the complex and very sophisticated language of the lowly prairie dog."

At first, other scientists couldn't believe what Slobodchikoff claimed his data proved.

He became accustomed to having his papers rejected from leading peer-reviewed scientific journals.

But little by little, his data won them over. "I get my studies accepted pretty regularly now," he told us on the phone.

This video shows you his evidence  that prairie dogs, as he told us …

1) "… incorporate information into their alarm calls about which species of predator that is attacking - coyote, domestic dog, human, red-tailed hawk …

2) "… and also put information into their calls about the predator's size, shape, color and even speed of travel…"

3) "… and can also come up with separate vocal descriptions - or at least separate labels - of each of several different objects they have never seen before …"

… and that he and his assistants have found that "the alarm calls are made up of small units of sound, much like human phonemes (units of sound) , that are used in different combinations to describe the different species of predators and other specific details…just like we use phonemes to build our sounds into words and sentences."

No other species, he says, including primate, dolphins and whales, have had such specific complexity and flexibility of communication nailed down - "decoded" - he says.

And he explains why. Take a look…

Consider again the surprising claim that Slobodchikoff makes in this short video:

"At this point in time, prairie dogs have the most sophisticated animal language that has been decoded" … that's including primates such as chimps and orangutans, plus whales and dolphins, elephants - any of the other reputedly "highly intelligent animals."

But that may be about to change in the home playgrounds of some dolphin off the coast of Florida.

(As he acknowledges. He does say, "At this point in time".)

As Slobodchikoff explains, his "Rosetta Stone" - allowing, in effect, parallel texts of meaning - was the fact that they could easily see the Prairie Dogs and record the specific event and context clearly related to many specific vocalizations.

(The ancient Rosetta Stone, from 196 BC, and discovered two centuries ago in Egypt, had three passages in different languages - Ancient Greek, Demotic Egyptian, and hieroglyphics - the latter hitherto undeciphered. Because the three all repeated essentially the same content, it allowed scholars finally to decipher the hieroglyphics.)

For example, Slobodchikoff's cameras, microphones and computers could see an approaching coyote - or domestic dog - and record the clearly related simultaneous alarm calls for coyote - or domestic dog… and then determine minute  differences undetectable by humans in the alarm calls.

But with the underwater dolphin, it's not so simple to see which particular vocalizations - that are far more complex than the Prairie dogs' - are related to which particular behaviors and situations - that are also far more complex, partly because dolphins live and move in a 3-D world and can communicate over longer distances - not confined to a small area around a burrow hole on a flat prairie.

Slobodchikoff did tell ABC News that he does expect dolphin language will likely prove more complex than what he has discovered in prairie dogs, when scientists finally figure out how to translate Dolphinese.

That may be about to happen in Florida.

Enter 'CHAT' - A New Smartphone App for Chatting With Dolphins

Sometime this summer, Denise Herzing hopes to start two-way conversations with wild dolphins out at sea.

She will use a new underwater iPhone-sized device that is loaded with a custom-made hardware/software interface called CHAT, an acronym for Cetacean Hearing And Telemetry.

In the New York Times video clip below, Herzing (who's been fascinated by dolphins ever since she was a girl) tells you all about it from her seagoing lab fitted into a large pleasure boat, from underwater swimming and playing with wild dolphins, and from her lab at her home base in the Florida Atlantic University's Department of Biological and Psychological Sciences.

Nobody knows if the dolphins will take the linguistic bait.

CHAT's computer won't try to translate Dolphinese (which has never been done) in the same way Con Slobodchikoff's computers translate prairie dog alarm calls.

Instead, CHAT aims to tempt wild dolphins to start up a conversation … possibly even by asking the human divers carrying the CHAT interface to give them something, or to do something.

The problem, as Herzing explains it, has been that in all the decades of dolphin research and training, dolphins have been asked to learn human words, signals and requests for tricks and other behavior, but have never been offered the opportunity or means to ask the humans for anything.

It's all been basically one-way communication, she says, resonating with that warning from Noam Chomsky and other linguistic philosophers about how it's important not to try to understand other species only through human comparisons and concepts.

In other words, it's all been too anthropocentric - human-centered.

It's time to do some listening, with the help of computers.

It's a little like duh, say a new generation of scientists.  Like, what would the dolphins like to talk about? What interests them?

Probably not how your favorite is doing on "Dancing With the Stars." (Though if we could explain all that to them, they might be curious - who knows? - at least for a few minutes, about this odd human activity.)

But ever since visiting with some wild dolphins in Western Australia in the late 1980s, this reporter has always wondered if another group of stars - the actual stars - might not be an interesting point of departure for conversation with dolphins, since we seem to have them in common.

Assuming dolphins' eyesight can see the stars, do dolphins loll about on a clear night and look up at the stars? Do they ever navigate by them? We don't know. Not yet, anyway.

Denise Herzing is on a similar tack, hoping something we have in common with dolphins might draw them into conversation.

Like seaweed. They sometimes play with strands of seaweed held out in the hands of a diver.

She has made up dolphin-like sounds or "words" for eight things dolphins seem to like - such as "bow wave ride" and "seaweed."

She will take CHAT under water this summer and play these made-up dolphin "words" on underwater speakers and then listen on hydrophones (underwater microphones) to see if the dolphins mimic them.

If they do take this bait, CHAT's algorithms will then take over and - along with perhaps some modeling behavior between divers, such as handing bits of seaweed back and forth - try to build up a common "new language" with the dolphins in order to get the communication game started.

Then, the hope is, CHAT will shift into high gear - like that computer in "Close Encounters" - to generate new complexities of conversation.

If it all pans out, who knows what we - or they - might learn. There's plenty to talk about, if we can figure out how, and they want to.

Chomsky and a number of other linguistic scientists say they will be surprised if evidence emerges - even in dolphins - of a truly human-like mind, one that is wired effortlessly to keep generating the same sort of endlessly expansive and creative language and thinking that has made us humans (as biologist Edward O. Wilson once put it in an informal conversation) "so damned dominant."

But we'll all be watching - and listening.

Here is the short New York Times video with Herzing as she prepares to try:


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This is the fourth in a series on animal intelligence - following:

1-Nature's Edge Notebook #11:

    "Hunting With a Most Endangered Hunter - Dateline Botswana" at:     

2-NEN # 12:

    "Dogs Use Subway, Cat Takes Bus,…" at:

3- NEN #13:

     "WHO NEEDS WORDS? CROWS?  YOU? WILD GORILLAS? ALISON KRAUSS?  Not the sarcastic octopus!  5 Videos (and a few words) exploring the matter…" at:

Supplemental Video: American Prairie Dog's Plight

Even as Slobodchikoff's computers have been translating the language of the American prairie dog, humanity has wiped out almost all of its numbers and its habitat.

As Slobodchikoff explains here, this is due to several causes  including not only spreading cities but cultural prejudice (treating them as vermin, shooting, poisoning them) and false perceptions of plenty. He also offers ideas for their preservation.