Prairie Dogs Can Describe Your Clothes (and Other Fun Facts)

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Denise Herzing's TED talk and video about dolphin language shows both the promise and challenge of learning to talk to animals. The promise is that more people are becoming open to the idea that some animals have language.

Language has long been considered unique to humans, and many biologists and linguists still believe that other species merely communicate by instinct, without awareness or intent. Although this argument is by no means settled, more scientists like Denise Herzing are giving animals the benefit of the doubt.

In my book, Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, I show that many species have language-like systems: they have specialized signals for different kinds of food, for different kinds of aggressive situations, for assessing the quality of potential mates, for identifying themselves, and for providing information about potential predators.

I think that communication grades into language along a continuum, just as evolution has moved along a continuum from the simplest organisms to the most complex. The simplest functional communication is an exchange of signals: One animal produces a signal, and another animal responds to it in exactly the same fixed way. In some species where it's vital that both individuals produce and respond to the signals exactly right, evolution has hard-wired the exchange into their genetic codes. To put it more scientifically, for a given stimulus there is a fixed response.

If we abandon the old paradigm that we are intrinsically different and superior to all other life forms, it's possible to look at animals with greater respect and, like Denise Herzing, start working towards decoding their language. -- Con Slobodchikoff

But I don't think this is true in all species. I believe that many insect, lizard, bird and mammal species--such as Denise Herzing's dolphins--go so far enough beyond unconscious stimulus-response patterns that they can be said to have language.

While linguists have a set of criteria for what a language should have, I see language as something that can be reduced to four basic elements: flexibility, intentionality, novelty, and structure. Flexibility means that animals are capable of producing many different signals, almost like a "toolbox" from which they can select the best signal, or combination of signals, to fit a particular situation. Intentionality means that they intend to inform others, which implies that they are aware, not only of themselves as individuals, but of others as beings different than themselves. Novelty means that they can come up with new signals for new situations, and structure means that they have some kind of organized framework in which these signals are used, something that we might call grammar.

If we abandon the old paradigm that we are intrinsically different and superior to all other life forms, it's possible to look at animals with greater respect and, like Denise Herzing, start working towards decoding their language.

But there's the rub: Most animals aren't interested in talking to us, and we haven't been very good at learning their language. What we need is a key, a Rosetta Stone, that allows us to understand the meaning of animal signals because we know context in which those signals are produced.

In my work with the language of Gunnison's prairie dogs in Arizona, I was fortunate to have a Rosetta Stone in the form of the alarm calls that the prairie dogs produce when a predator approaches. In this situation, my research team and I could see an approaching predator and know exactly what a prairie dog was calling about. We could also witness the reactions of listening prairie dogs and use computer analysis to help us understand the content of the message.

We could then do experiments by changing the context. We had different predators appear, we had different sizes, shapes, and colors of predators, and we presented the prairie dogs with novel situations such as ovals, circles, and triangles that simulated the behavior of predators. A YouTube video of our experiments can be found here.

These experiments showed that prairie dogs have a very sophisticated language. Their alarm calls contain words, equivalent to nouns, for the species of predator: coyote, dog, human, red-tailed hawk. The calls also contain descriptions, equivalent to adjectives, of the individual features of a predator: the size, shape, and color. For example, for a human they can describe the size and shape of a person and the color of the person's clothes. The prairie dogs can also come up with words for novel objects, equivalent to us making up new words.

Once we start giving animals the benefit of the doubt, we can start designing clever experiments that will allow us to decode their language. Maybe someday in the near future, we will actually be able to talk to them.

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