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September 9, 2011

Kind News Story: Speaking of Prairie Dogs

Prairie dogs and other animals may be smarter than we think!

  • Prairie dogs live in underground burrows. A series of prairie dog burrows is called a town, or colony. Lindsey Sterling-Krank/The HSUS

It’s a busy day in prairie dog town. There are burrows to dig, and grasses and weeds to nibble. The furry rodents greet family and friends with a “kiss” and chatter with neighbors across town. They playfully chase each other and roll around in the dirt.

Suddenly, an adult lets out a loud warning cry. Everyone scurries into their underground burrows for safety. An intruder has invaded the town—and already, even without seeing the predator, everyone knows it’s a thin, brown coyote.

Professor Con Slobodchikoff (Sla-bod-chi-koff) of Northern Arizona University has been studying prairie dogs and how they communicate for many years. What he’s discovered will amaze you!

Help save prairie dogs from extinction! Here's how >>

“Prairie dogs have a very sophisticated language,” he says. There is one call for hawks and another for humans. There are even different calls for coyotes and dogs. What’s more, prairie dogs can describe the shape and color of the predator!

Color-Coordinated

To prove this, the professor had one of his students walk into a prairie dog town several times. Each time, the student wore a different color T-shirt, and the prairie dogs’ reaction was recorded. Sure enough, their alarm calls varied slightly each time.

Practice Makes Perfect

Slobodchikoff also tells us that prairie dog pups babble! They “stand around an adult female—kind of like schoolkids around the schoolteacher,” explains the professor. “The adult gives a predator call, and the babies try to mimic the call. Gradually, over the space of several months, they get better at it.”

Prairie Dog Problems

Today, prairie dogs have a lot to talk about. Considered by some to be pests, they are often poisoned and shot for sport. Their colonies are bulldozed to make way for new construction.

This happens even though many other animals need prairie dogs and their burrows. At least nine species depend on them for food and shelter, including some of the rarest animals in North America.

Bark, Yip, or Squeak!

Prairie dogs need us to speak up for them. Professor Slobodchikoff urges kids to help save these fascinating creatures from extinction. Here's what you can do to help.

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